Posts about pilot skills, knowledge, and judgment
Cruising at 10,000 feet under a high, broken cloud layer with occasional light rain, my parents, my wife Janet, Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, and I gazed out at towering Mount Shasta off to our right, spotlighted by shifting shafts of sunlight. The flight had been smooth and beautiful, and now after about two hours it was time for a tank switch and some quick math. I calculated how much fuel we'd burned so far and looked at the GPS estimate of our remaining time en route. Good—we were on track to arrive with more than an hour of fuel in the tanks—always a good feeling!
"Come on, come on…" I muttered aloud to myself as I stared intently at the "pylon," the intersection of two roads, off my left wing. I was practicing "eights on pylons" and was struggling to keep my wingtip on the pylon while maintaining coordinated flight, but try as I might, I kept falling behind. I knew that I was supposed to push the nose down to speed up in this case, but my altitude was already uncomfortably low. I must have chosen the wrong "pivotal altitude" to start the maneuver or the wind had shifted or… something! Whatever it was, I wasn't getting it, and I was starting to get frustrated.
"Ungh!" I grunted involuntarily as the Arrow plunked down unceremoniously on Reid-Hillview airport's runway 31R. That was supposed to be a "soft-field" landing. My session in the pattern wasn't going particularly well. While my takeoffs, airspeeds, and approaches were pretty good, the landings just were not coming together. There was no mystery about it. It had been a couple of weeks since I'd flown, and the time before was three weeks earler. For someone supposedly preparing for a checkride, I wasn't flying nearly enough.
It was a very dark, moonless night at Paso Robles, California when my wife Janet, our friend Lena, and I finished a lovely dinner and were boarding the airplane for our flight home. Paso Robles is in a valley, surrounded by high terrain, and there would be very few signs of human habitation along most of our route back to the San Francisco bay area. Anticipating this, I had filed an IFR flight plan and prepared to fly the published obstacle departure procedure to give us an extra margin of safety.
The shadows crept slowly across the ceiling, cast by the passing cars on the street outside. It was 4am and I'd been awake for a while. My last few lessons in the glider had been a struggle. The landings that used to be so smooth were now teeth rattlers. My attempts to do a forward slip just resulted in a little extra wind noise, and I'd scared myself by failing to see traffic that my instructor had to point out. It wasn't feeling like I would ever be a pilot. I didn't know the term at the time, but I was deep in the doldrums of a learning plateau, and doubt was a constant companion.