"Argh! Frustrating!" I growled as I watched the altimeter dip almost 200 feet below my target altitude.
"You just need to use more trim," said my instructor Bill.
"Well, I know, but how much?" I asked, almost rhetorically, as I fumbled with the trim wheel between the seats. We were practicing slow flight in the Piper Arrow II that I've been using for my Commercial and CFI training, and the difference in the amount of pitch trim required compared to my club's Cessna 172 and A36 Bonanza was giving me fits.
I struggled through the flight, noticing some improvement, but overall, it was one of those "character building" lessons. Afterwards it occurred to me that the basic question of "how much" comes up a lot in flying and, come to think of it, in learning any new skill. I described a similar experience in my observe-act-observe post last year. While trying to stay on the localizer in a very strong crosswind, I just couldn't bring myself to use the large crab angle required to hold course.
At the time, I realized that my pre-conceived notion of how much crab was "reasonable" was limiting my ability to respond appropriately to the information my instruments were giving me. In light of my recent experience with the Arrow's trim, however, I realized that in general I bring pre-conceptions about "how much" to any new situation. Invariably, I use a range of action that's based on past similar situations.
This often serves me well, such as when my buddy Gabor let me take the cyclic and anti-torque pedals of his helicopter. I'd heard that helicopter controls were very sensitive, so I unconsciously applied my habits from gliders, which require a very light touch on the stick. As a result, I had very little tendency to over-control. This is an example of what's called "positive transfer" of skills.
By contrast, the Arrow requires much more trimming than anything I've ever flown before, so my ingrained sense of how much to roll the wheel didn't transfer nearly so well. I'm hoping this experience will teach me to more quickly recognize situations in which my pre-conceived ideas of "how much" aren't working, so I can consciously recalibrate.
On our next lesson, Bill and I headed to the practice area for more slow flight and stalls. This time they went pretty well. On noticing the airplane trending away from my desired altitude, I more quickly brought the airplane back where I wanted it and trimmed aggressively to keep it there.
"You made a lot of progress today," Bill observed in our post-flight de-brief.
"Yes, it felt much better," I said. "It got a lot easier when I accepted that what I was doing wasn't working!"
There's yet another valuable lesson, learned in the cockpit, that applies to all areas of life!
"Are we on the ground?" I asked my instructor Bill as we careened down the runway. I really couldn't tell, and it certainly wasn't because I greased the landing!
"Yes," he replied.
"Wow, I thought we were ballooning!" I said. Our "arrival" on the runway had been sudden, firm, and far too nose-low, but apparently not too fast. If it had been, we certainly would have ballooned!
"You just don't have the sight picture yet," Bill said. "It'll come."
The experience wasn't really surprising. It was my first attempt at landing a new (to me) airplane, and I was doing it from the right seat!
For the last several years, all my flying has been in my club's Cessna 172 and A36 Bonanza, but now I'm starting my Commercial and CFI training and I've decided to use a Piper Arrow II at a club across town at nearby Reid-Hillview airport. I did my primary airplane training at this club years ago, so it was easy to re-activate my membership. I chose the Arrow because it's specifically designed as a complex trainer (and a complex airplane is required for the Commercial and CFI checkrides). As much as I love our Bonanza, it's not a trainer, and in Bill's opinion, my training would probably take longer if we used it. What's more, our A36 has no toe-brakes for the right seat, and I didn't relish the thought of asking the examiner to stop the airplane during the checkride!
Over the past few weeks I've been studying the Arrow's Information Manual, which pre-dates the modern Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) format. I made computer-based flash cards of the key memory items, including V-speeds and time-critical emergency procedures, and drilled myself on them repeatedly. By the time I got to the airplane, I knew them well. That preparation really helped—but it couldn't help my landing flare! Only practice will do that.
"You're going to like the Arrow," Bill had said. "It handles really well." As we climbed away from the airport on a downwind departure, performing some gentle S-turns to look for traffic, I saw what he meant. The controls are well harmonized and responsive, and the performance is quite respectable considering the "Hershey-bar" wing and the 200 horsepower, four-cylinder engine. This was my first experience with the Piper manual flap handle, and being a strongly kinesthetic and tactile learner, I like it. Not only can you easily see the position of the flaps, you can directly feel their effect! I was less pleased, however, with the position of the trim wheel. Wedging my hand between the seat cushions to roll the wheel isn't the most comfortable operation, and this airplane requires a lot of trimming! I don't know how big-handed pilots do it.
My first approach to land at a nearby non-towered airport held some surprises. In our Bonanza, I'm used to being able to reduce manifold pressure five inches and get an approximately 500 feet-per-minute descent, but the Arrow is surprising slippery for having such a boxy wing. It's clear I'll need to plan my descents more conservatively than usual.
And then, well, there were the landings. I still haven't quite gotten the hang of them!
"Let's just do pattern work next time," Bill suggested. "You need to develop the sight picture for the landing flare. It'll look just the same as the picture when you're rotating for takeoff."
Patterns! I'm looking forward to them. As I've written here before, I'm one of those weirdos who actually enjoys patterns! I'm gonna learn how to land that thing…
When I walked in my front door after the flight, I called out to my wife Janet, "I just love flying—even when I suck!"
She just laughed and welcomed me home.
"I think that glider ride was the best present I ever gave you!" she said, referring to the flight many years ago when I was first bitten by the flying bug. Giving her a big hug, I answered, "Oh, I know it was!"
Thanks again, babes—for everything.
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"No!" I thought to myself as I stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I'd just taken the Certified Flight Instructor—Airplane knowledge test, but despite extensive preparation, I'd missed several questions! I passed handily, but my score still came as a shock. I'd never missed more than one question on any previous knowledge test, so this was outside my experience.
Then I remembered a brief news item that I'd read in AOPA Pilot magazine a couple of weeks earlier. The FAA had made unannounced changes to several knowledge tests, causing failure rates to spike sharply. In the worst case, over 50% of recent applicants taking the Fundamentals of Instruction test had failed. The unfamiliar questions I encountered on the CFI-A test showed that it was affected too.
I exchanged email with a customer service representative at my favorite vendor of test-prep materials about the changes. I knew that several years ago the FAA stopped publishing all questions, omitting those that duplicated other questions in every way except specific numbers. For example, they published only one version of a particular weight-and-balance problem, even though the test bank contained several versions of the same question with different weights and arms. But the service rep explained that the FAA has recently changed its policy even further, publishing only a few sample questions.
Well, I can't really argue with that. The old system definitely encouraged rote memorization, and I confess to relying on it for some of the more arcane and arbitrary knowledge, such as regulations. (How many different kinds of night are there? At least three: the night used for logging night flight time (civil twilight to civil twilight), the night used for passenger-carrying currency (one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise), and the night requiring the use of position lights (sunset to sunrise).) With more conceptual material, such as aerodynamics and weather, it's easier to study for true understanding rather than just rote recall.
Still, without at least some sense of the required knowledge, it's hard to study efficiently. Part 61 of the FARs lists the aeronautical knowledge areas required for various certificates and ratings, but these are very broad. The practical test standards (PTS) provide some guidance, but these are oriented towards the checkride, not the knowledge test. AOPA, the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), and other groups have called on the FAA to establish knowledge testing standards analogous to those provided by the PTS. I think this is a very good idea.
In the meantime, though, I need a new study strategy. In the spirit of observe-act-observe, I've started with reading Parts 61 and 91 of the FARs front-to-back. I won't retain all of it, but I will at least have seen it and am likely to remember where to look for key items. The next obvious step will be to read the various aeronautical knowledge handbooks and advisory circulars that the FAA publishes. As an instructor, I'm going to have to be familiar with these in some detail anyway. Third-party texts and study guides provide good explanations of this material (and they're usually better written) but the government publications are the definitive source for what the FAA wants pilots to know.
So, will I retake the test? I haven't decided yet. With the current state of knowledge testing there's no guarantee that I would improve my score. I might be better off thoroughly studying the knowledge areas that I missed to prepare myself for the oral exam portion of the checkride. This might be one of those times when I should swallow my pride, let go my perfectionist impulses, and do the expedient thing.
But I'm still gonna hit those books. I owe my students nothing less.
"How many pilots do we have in the audience today?" asked the day's featured speaker at the Aerospace Museum of California in Sacramento, California. Virtually every hand in the large crowd went up, bringing a smile to the old man's face.
General Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager, perhaps the best known pilot in the world, is widely regarded as one of history's most skilled and accomplished practitioners of the craft. The first person to fly faster than sound, in the famous Bell X1 on October 14, 1947, he's flown over 350 types of military aircraft in over 60 years of flying. At 88, he's still healthy and sharp—and still regularly flies both military and GA aircraft.
The General's two-hour talk and video presentation, an FAA-sponsored safety seminar, were mainly autobiographical, sharing experiences from his long and storied flying career. Generations of pilots have regarded General Yeager as the epitome of competence and confidence in the cockpit and with good reason. A World War II ace with 13 victories, the test pilot who set the standard for all test pilots, a battle-tested military commander, and the ultimate aviation safety expert, General Yeager has accumulated enough accomplishments for several flying careers.
There's a danger, though, in putting the man on a pedestal. We're tempted to attribute his incredible record to superhuman talent, the "right stuff," something that we mere mortals can admire but never aspire to. But while few pilots will ever match his achievements, we can all benefit tremendously from his example. I believe we can and should aspire to the standard he has set.
General Yeager built his career on flying in high-pressure situations, from combat to flight testing leading-edge aircraft. He offered some insight into how he was consistently able to face these situations with confidence and calm and take effective action.
"When you're flying in combat, you might die," said Yeager. "It's out of your control, so you might as well put it out of your mind and focus completely on what you have to do." His point is that when you've done all the preparation you can, there's no point in worrying. It only distracts from the task at hand. This reminded me very much of the observe-act-observe cycle that I've experienced in my own flying. It's much easier to be confident when my attention is focused on the current situation and my possible courses of action.
On the importance of preparation, General Yeager told the story of how he approached the Bell X1 flight test program. He described sitting in the cockpit on the ground and asking himself, "How can this thing kill me? And what can I do to prevent it?" He would then develop a plan for every eventuality he could concoct. One such scenario was main battery failure prior to lighting the rockets. The X1 was designed to be landed dead-stick, with no fuel on board. To land it with a load of fuel would have caused a gear collapse, producing a deadly fireball. The airplane was equipped with a fuel-jettison valve, but it was electrically operated. Without battery power and with a full load of fuel, he'd be a dead man. So he rigged up a nitrogen canister in the cockpit with a copper line leading to the fuel-jettison valve, allowing him to open the valve remotely without the battery. Sure enough, on his very first flight after breaking the sound barrier, the battery became disconnected when the X1 was dropped from its B-29 carrier aircraft. His modification allowed him to jettison the fuel and land safely.
"I was lucky," he said, "but sometimes you make your own luck!"
A thorough knowledge of the aircraft and its systems is a cornerstone of General Yeager's safety philosophy. He insists on a cockpit checkout in every airplane he's about to fly for the first time, no matter how much experience he has in the make and model. He wants to learn everything he can about that particular airplane before he takes it into the air. Meticulous and disciplined preparation on the ground allows him to direct his full attention to flying the airplane once airborne. That's his approach to aviation. He doesn't worry; he plans. Hearing this, I felt all the more grateful for the opportunities I've had to contribute to the maintenance of my club's airplanes under the supervision of our excellent mechanic. There's always more to learn!
As one might expect of such a man, General Yeager does not mince words. He offered frank, unvarnished opinions on topics ranging from military inefficiency to pork-barrel politics to pilots who take stupid risks in airplanes.
"I have no sympathy for a pilot who tries to use an airplane for something it wasn't designed to do!" he told us. "Like rolling your wheels on the water—what are you trying to prove?"
He had similarly harsh words for the Reno Air Races. "I went there once and watched them kill three pilots and destroy three of my beloved P-51s. I never went back."
His message was clear: observe your aircraft's operating limitations and don't take needless risks for your ego's sake.
As my wife Janet and I waited in line for the shuttle van to take us back to our airplane, the General and his wife got into their Toyota RAV4 (with personalized license plate BELLX1A) and drove away—with the General at the wheel, of course!
Thank you, General Yeager, for your lifetime of service to your country and to all of us pilots whom you've inspired. We follow in your footsteps—even if we can't fill your shoes!
On Monday morning, Memorial Day, I was sitting at my desk, reading my email. My buddy Hal had forwarded a link to an Avweb article about recent discoveries in the investigation of the Air France flight 447 crash. But as I was scrolling to the article, I came across another news item that stopped me cold. On Friday, May 27th, Amanda Franklin, 25-year-old air show performer, died from injuries sustained in a March 12th crash during a performance in Brownsville, Texas.
I wrote about Amanda and her husband Kyle in my March 24th post, joining many others in an appeal to the aviation community for help in their time of great need.
It's always heartbreaking to lose someone so young and dynamic so suddenly and unexpectedly. We ask why it had to happen, even though we know there's no answer forthcoming. I recently learned that in theology this problem is called "theodicy," a term coined by Leibnitz from Greek words meaning "God" and "justice." It's the fundamental question of how to reconcile a loving and compassionate God, the essential goodness of life, with the incredible suffering that persists in the world. Many great thinkers over the centuries have grappled with this question and I won't claim any fresh insights here. But each of us eventually faces this question in a very personal way. For many of us who fly, events like Amanda's death can lead us to question how we can persist in pursuing what we love, what really matters to us, when its risks and costs can seem untenable.
It might seem odd with so many horrific natural disasters in the news that the death of one young woman would affect me so. A big part of it is the kinship that all of us with a passion for flight share. Amanda made the choice at a very young age to build her life around this passion because it's what really mattered to her. She and Kyle chose to pursue what they loved, the art and craft of flying, and to share their passion with audiences all over the country through exuberant performances.
My own personal response in the wake of Amanda's death is to re-commit to my own passion for flying and to continue to share it with others through my writing, speaking, and teaching. Even in the face of such a tragedy, I firmly believe that we can pursue our passion for flight safely, and I promise to do so. I do not accept Ernest K. Gann's thesis that Fate is the Hunter.
But whatever my thoughts in the wake of this horrible loss, Kyle and his family still need our help. The Moonlight Fund and the ICAS Foundation are accepting donations, and the 2011 Aviation Roundup air show will be held on August 27th and 28th in Minden, Nevada with proceeds benefiting Kyle and Amanda's family. My wife Janet and I plan to be there to show our support. If you live in the Western states and can make it there, I encourage you to join us. And if you're an air show performer, they're still looking for participants. It promises to be a fitting and moving tribute to a young woman who committed her life to what she loved most.
Blue skies, Amanda. You'll be missed.
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