Saturday, March 10, 2007

Finishing up!

Today I finished all of the requirements to take the checkride for my license. I had planned to fly early this morning, taking off at 8 a.m. to fly to Cumberland, Maryland, and back. Then, Rich was going to meet me to finish up some hood work (simulated instrument flying) and go over the maneuvers I need to have polished for my checkride. When I arrived at the airport, the weather was great at the airport, and it was great all the way to Cumberland, but.... The temperature at Cumberland was -1 degree Celsius, and the dewpoint was -2 degrees celsius. The difference between the temperature and the dewpoint is referred to as the temperature-dewpoint spread. When the temperature-dewpoint spread is zero, visible moisture forms as fog and clouds. Cumberland is in the mountains, and I didn't want to be flying there with fog and/or clouds in the way, so I waited on the ground for the temperature to rise as forecast and the temperature-dewpoint spread to increase. By 9:30, the temperature at Cumberland was 3 degrees, and the dewpoint was -2. That was enough of a "spread" for me, so I took off at about 10 o'clock and headed West.

I navigated by pilotage, using a map and checking it against landmarks on the ground. I programmed the route into the GPS for backup, but didn't use it for navigation. A couple times, I saw from landmarks on the ground that I was off course and had to correct, turning to head where I could see I wanted to be. It was somewhat hazy and there was a strong wind, neither of which helped to keep my course straight. You can see the corrections on my GPS track -- you can also see that where I had an easy landmark to follow (a river), my course was nice and straight.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of the infamous John Brown rebellion to free the slaves, was one of my visual checkpoints. It's easy to pick out because of the break in the hills, the rivers coming together, and the arrangement of the buildings in this cute little town.

Although there was little to no snow where I live, snow started appearing as I flew West. As I flew over the ridge in this next picture, there was a stark line at the top -- no snow on the southeastern side of the ridge, but snow on the northwestern side. I scrambled for my camera, but I was already past the ridge by the time I snapped a picture and didn't want to turn back.

My airspeed was a constant 120 mph, but there was a strong headwind from the southwest, so my groundspeed was only about 80-85 mph. Interestingly, although there was no wind reported at my destination in Cumberland, you could see the patterns made by the wind in the snow below me -- it was beautiful.

In all, it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to get to Cumberland because of the headwind. The airport is between two ridges, so I dropped over the ridge to the East and entered the traffic pattern. I landed, used the bathroom, and got somebody to sign my logbook to show I'd been there, then called Rich to let him know I'd arrived and was heading back.

I taxied down to the beginning of the runway and went through my pre-takeoff checks. When I checked the magnetos, there was a large RPM drop on the right magneto and the engine sounded very rough. I had heard of this happening -- lead from the fuel can foul the spark plugs. I checked the Pilot's Operating Handbook, which said to run the same checks at a higher RPM, which I did. The engine smoothed out, but to double-check I called Rich. He confirmed that I had done the right thing, and that as the plane was now running smoothly, I had burned off the lead and it was safe to fly. I turned onto the runway and took off heading East. I snapped a quick photo over my shoulder as I climbed up and over the first ridge.

I called Flight Watch to get an update on the weather heading back home and filed a pilot report. Before I left to head to Cumberland, I had been warned of moderate turbulence below 8,000 feet, and I wanted to let them know that there was no turbulence at all at my cruising altitude of 4,500 feet. After the pilot report was filed, I contacted Air Traffic Control to get Flight Following and continued on my way.

The headwind that had slowed me down so much on my way out was now working in my favor, and while my airspeed was still about 120 mph, my groundspeed on the way back was about 150 mph. The total trip back only took about 40 minutes, or about half the time the outbound trip had taken. Still, I was curious about one thing....

One of my headsets has a feature that lets me plug a music device into it. It's supposed to mute the music whenever something comes across the radio, and I decided to give it a try. While continuing to look for traffic I plugged my iPod into my headset and pushed "Play" on my playlist of flying songs. It worked beautifully. If I pushed the microphone away from my mouth, I could sing along and nobody would hear my off-key crooning! When Air Traffic Control or I talked on the radio, the music automatically muted. It was great, and made the relatively short flight back to Gaithersburg seem even shorter.

Rich was waiting with his new puppy when I landed, and we took off again to go finish the training I needed. I flew under the hood, by instruments, and Rich demonstrated a soft-field landing. I would have liked to polish up some other maneuvers with Rich, but my late start to Cumberland meant we had to cut the flight short.

I've now completed everything I need to take my checkride, and Rich is submitting the form this weekend. The FAA's Designated Examiner has confirmed that he is free all of this coming week, so I'll be scheduling time with him and.... [gulp] taking the practical test in the next few days. I'm nervous.


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