Sunday, January 07, 2007

Back in the Pattern

I need 0.7 hours of solo cross-country time, so I planned a trip this week to Cumberland, Maryland (KCBE) and met with Rich to go over the plan and get signed off for it. I reserved a plane for yesterday, went to the airport, and got all the way through the preflight inspection. A pilot from my club walked up to chat, and while we were talking the winds picked up. I listened to the AWOS on my handheld radio and they had jumped 10 knots, blowing at 17 knots and gusting. I decided not to go. I had seen Rich leave on a flight of his own while I was getting ready to go, and he returned a little while later as I was eating a burger in the airport cafe with some friends. He said he was relieved to see the plane still on the ground when he got back because the turbulence had been pretty rough and the approach to land was squirrely.

Jodie and I had stayed up late last night and slept too late to go to church, so after some pancakes I checked the weather. The weather reports showed unlimited visibility, high ceilings, and winds between 3 knots and calm all across the area. I checked for an available airplane and headed to the airport, calling Rich on the way to let him know I was going. I preflighted the plane, then called Flight Service for a weather briefing and to file my ADIZ flight plans. The briefer did a very good job of talking me out of going. (They can't tell me not to go, but they can recommend against it.) He told me the ceiling (cloud cover) at KCBE was down to 5,000 feet and descending, and that there were rain showers in the area with a chance of thunderstorms. Cumberland is in the mountains, and there were already reports of mountains being obscured by clouds. The minimum safe en route altitude in the area of Cumberland is 3,500 feet, and as a VFR pilot I have to stay 500 feet below the clouds. That left only 1,000 feet -- more than enough, but with the clouds descending I could end up getting stuck between descending clouds and obstacles on the ground. I decided not to go.

Instead, I spent an hour flying in the traffic pattern at Gaithersburg. I haven't spent much if any time recently in the pattern just practicing performance take-offs and landings, so I decided I should do that as practice for my upcoming practical test. My short-field landings were all good, though I skipped once slightly and touched down twice. On my third trip around the pattern I did a beautiful short-field landing and easily turned off the runway at the first exit. As I climbed out my fourth time, I realized that I had climbed 800 feet before I crossed the departure end of the runway. I hadn't noticed any cross-wind, so I listened to the AWOS as I flew downwind. The wind had picked up to 15 knots, blowing straight down the runway. This exceeded my solo limitations, so I knew I had to land and park the plane. I did another short-field landing and it was perfect -- I stayed a little high as if I had to clear an obstacle, then put in the last notch of flaps, cut power, and dropped down for a smooth touchdown right on the numbers. I could have stopped halfway to the first turnoff.

I'm disappointed I didn't get to fly to Cumberland, because I'm pretty focused on checking off the requirements to finish my training, but it was good practice today. I'm comfortable with short-field landings and think I do them pretty well.

During my last few hours of training with Rich, I think I need to focus on the following: soft-field takeoffs, slips to a landing, cross-wind landings (if we can fly on a day with decent winds), and. . . . I still need to learn recovery from unusual attitudes under the hood, but other than that I feel pretty comfortable with everything else that's in the practical test standards.