Maybe Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something?

Can’t seem to catch a break. Between crappy weather and mechanical problems, I haven’t flown in two and a half weeks. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, ya’ know?

Here’s how it went. Or failed to went. Uh… go. Oh, whatever…

Wednesday, 25 November: 

Fly with Brad. Weather cancellation at 9:00 am for my 2:00 pm lesson. By 4:00 pm, it’s clear and sunny. Another classic Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.

Monday and Tuesday, 23 and 24 November: 

Weather sucks. Didn’t have anything scheduled, but couldn’t sneak in because of the weather.

Saturday, 21 November: 

Fly with Brad. Make it as far as the run up ramp. Then the right magneto ran horribly rough. Tried to fix it twice. Took it back to the hangar. Canceled due to mechanical failure. Serious Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. On the upside, Brad graded my pre-solo written exam, so that part’s out of the way. I’m having more than my share of these lately where flight school is concerned. Jim solos successfully. Greg flies, but can’t solo because he doesn’t have sufficient hours in the air. I learn that I am the only student out of the ground school class to have taken the FAA written exam.

Thursday, 19 November: 

Fly with Brad. Weather cancellation.

Tuesday, 17 November: 

Fly with Chris. Conducted our pre-flight instruction and talked for quite awhile. He’s a patient instructor who doesn’t mind taking tangents while discussing pertinent aviation issues. Move out to the aircraft to do the pre-flight. The cabin smelled as though someone had poured a gallon on fuel on the floor and closed the doors. I wouldn’t drive my car in such a condition, and Chris agreed. Better safe than sorry, and all that. So, canceled due to strong odor of fuel in the cabin. Afterward, Chris spent well over an hour just quizzing me on terminal area charts. That was well worth it! I had an instructor to myself and was able to go anywhere with the discussion. Very valuable.

Saturday, 14 November: 

Tour Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control. Spend time with Jim touring the air traffic control facility. Jim’s supposed to solo today, but the weather’s not cooperating. Run into Greg, another ground school classmate who is also supposed to be soloing today. Weather’s not behaving any differently for him.

I take a quick trip to the Manassas Airport and it’s eerily quiet and foggy. Reminded me of Stephen King’s story “The Mist.” Got scared thinking about that and drove home fast and hid under the covers. Everybody knows they can’t get you when you’re under the covers.

FAA Written Exam or "Dare to be Stupid!" – Weird Al Yankovic

9 November:

Scored an 87%. I did the two practice tests yesterday and scored 88 and 84, so an 87 is about right. I’m happy with it, even though I was hoping to break 90. I didn’t go through all the questions as thoroughly as my fellow student Jim did, so I am sure he’ll kick ass.

I would have done better, but I completely brain cramped on how to use that stupid navigational protractor thingy, and didn’t realize what I had done wrong until I was walking to the car. Then I had a real Home Simpson “Duh’oh!” moment. lol… That cost me about 4-6%. Bummer…

Of course, now I’ll never forget the right way.

The proctor likes to talk, so what actually took about an hour was stretched into 2 and a half. Nice guy, though.

The two practice tests each focused on different knowledge, and this computer test was yet a third. All in all, ’twas a good experience.

Next: Prepare for the solo!

15 November:

It’s Sunday morning and I am lounging about with the doggies et. al. sun beaming down brilliantly on the dampened fall leaves. I haven’t seen the sun here since last week, and it’s a welcome phenomenon. There’s been no flying all week, and I doubt I’ll be able to get in a lesson today at this late of a time.

Yesterday, (“One time at band camp…”) I toured a huge air traffic control facility yesterday morning and it was fascinating. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take photos in the place, so I have nothing to show you.

The facility is brand new, relatively speaking. I don’t think I’ve seen so much technology in one place in a very long time. It was fascinating, overwhelming, and totally cool!

I drove out the day before to make sure I knew how much time it took to get there. That’s an old Army habit — a leader’s recon. Know the route before you need to used it and all that. The facility lies on the grounds of the former Vint Hill Farms Station Army base and many of the old buildings are still there, if you drive well into the property.

So many of the Army installations have closed or transitioned from military control to other agencies either federal, state or, as this one is, commercial developers. So much of the Army flavor is gone, but it’s still there if one is willing to go looking.

I had always wanted to see Vint Hill Farms. When I was in my Army advanced course, one of my fellow students was somehow associated with Vint Hill and he wasn’t allowed to talk much about it. That’s because it used to be a super secret kind of place that regular guys like me didn’t get to see. It’s out in the middle of horse country, too, so the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. Anyway, I tell you this because I did a lot of exploring when I was out doing my recon on Wednesday. Nice area. Would have liked to have been stationed there back when the post was still booming.

Flight Lesson #7 or “That’s the Night That The Lights Went Out in Manassas”

It was windy. Man, oh man, was it windy. Probably too windy for a student pilot, but I had Chris, my flight instructor, sitting in the right seat making sure that the wings stayed on top and the wheels on the bottom. No sweat.

I looked over the weather about 30 minutes before takeoff on the fancy weather computer that the flight school has. At the time, it wasn’t too windy, but it was about to be in 30 minutes or so. And that’s now. But it’s not windy enough to warrant a “no go”, just something of which to be aware.

Preflight is now pretty easy for me. So is taxiing to the runway. I’m also growing more comfortable with radio calls now. I still get a little flustered if I run into something unexpected. And with the new headsets clamped on each ear, I can actually hear what’s going on. So when the tower cleared me for take off, I revved the engine, taxied out onto the runway and let ‘er rip.

The airspeed indicator is the instrument on the top left of the two rows of instruments called a “six pack.” That’s the one that’s probably most critical on take off and landing. As I roll down the runway, I am learning to keep a close eye on the airspeed indicator and keep the aircraft moving straight and true down the center line. No problem.

Until the Cessna’s wheels left the pavement.

Once reaching the appropriate speed, I pull back on the yoke to rotate for take off. At the very instant the wheels lost contact with the ground, the strong crosswind gusted and blew the airplane to the left abruptly and startled the hell out of me. The runway is 100 feet wide, and I went from the center line (roughly) to flying over the grass in literally the blink of an eye.

Good thing I didn’t blink, ’cause I’d have missed it.

“Whoa! That wasn’t supposed to happen!” I exclaim loudly and try to correct, but the wind doesn’t want any part of it. Finally, I get the airplane back on course, thanks in no small way to Chris’s coaching and encouragement. It’s a little bumpy, but acceptable and we proceed out to the practice area.

One of the good things about the instructors is that they are very flexible in tailoring any given lesson to the needs of the student, while staying faithful to the federally approved course syllabus. Before we left, I told Chris that I wanted to practice under windy conditions some of the maneuvers I had learned in a previous lesson when the winds were nonexistent. No problem there either. There was plenty of wind.

I needed to become more familiar with the landmarks of the practice area so I don’t get lost when I am out there one day all by my lonesome. So we did a little sightseeing as well.

When it was time to go home, I turned the aircraft northeast and headed back toward Manassas. As is the procedure, I called Potomac Center to get clearance to enter the DC Special Flight Rules Area. The controller came back with the anticipated information and then told us that Manassas Tower was out of contact.

Out of contact? How could this be? Weird.

We proceeded toward Manassas anticipating the communications anomaly would be resolved and we’d be on the ground in no time. When we were at the appropriate point, I keyed the radio and said “Manassas Tower, Cessna 35354, 7 miles southwest for the west ramp.”

(Was that a cricket?)

Nope, not a single cricket at pattern altitude. Manassas Tower was not talking to anyone. So we switched to the Manassas Ground frequency and repeated the call. The controller answered with two words: “Stand by.”

The next voice we heard on the radio was the controller announcing to anyone who was listening — and there were undoubtedly many — that everything was on hold and that departing planes would have to return to the ramp. He said that they had no radar, no computers, no nothing, except for the one working radio on which he was broadcasting. Then he called us and cleared us to land.

Chris tried calling the school on their assigned frequency, but they didn’t answer either. Strange. Something was going on, but we had no clue what it was.

We proceed in. I made the left hand turn and lined us up on the runway. This time, I had a better time keeping the plane on target. This is in part because Chris had covered three of the six pack which had forced me to look outside the airplane. (Best thing he could have done for me.) The wind was making the airspeed indicator vary quite a bit and I did my best to hold her steady. When I felt as though I was coming in a little low, I added power to adjust my glide slope without having to be prompted. In fact, the whole lesson I was adjusting this and that nudging the plane in the direction I wanted it to go instead of pushing it. I was really feeling the plane this lesson instead of trying to force my will upon it. This was far easier and far less fatiguing.

I get to the runway numbers and pull the engine to idle. At this point, when you are about 5 feet or so off the runway, the pilot is to pull back on the yoke in the attempt to keep the plane flying until the airspeed drops and the plane settles in, which it did with little fanfare.

There you go. A second unassisted landing, and this time in some rather odd conditions:

1. Virtually no help from Manassas Tower.
2. Some serious wind.
3. A smattering of nausea from the motion of the maneuvers.

Once on the ground, we pulled up to the school, parked and walked in to a darkened office space. No wonder no one was there to talk to us when we called — the power was out all across the airport.

I turned in the paperwork and did the post flight critique. It was a terrific lesson in that for the first time, I wasn’t fighting with the airplane to make it fly. I was working WITH the airplane. Huge difference.

I hopped in the Prius and headed out around the end of the runways. As I was going out, it occurred to me that this had been a VERY good day. Not only did I land the plane myself, not only did I work with the plane instead of against it, not only did I make an acceptable approach by eye…

Wait a minute. There are supposed to be lights along the runway which tell you if you’re on the glide slope or not. I don’t remember using them. Odd, because you’re supposed to and they are really, REALLY hard to miss, particularly if you’re a nervous student pilot. But the power was out.

And so were the glide slope indicators.

Wow! I landed COMPLETELY by eyeball this time. Couldn’t rely on the existing navigational aids ‘cause there weren’t any. Double bonus!

So now I have my first aviation tall tale to tell. Next time I tell it, I think I’ll put myself in a bigger airplane. Something like a Gulfstream jet. Or a helicopter. And I’ll say that the winds were just shy of hurricane strength winds. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

But any way you slice it, this was a pivotal lesson. To the credit of my instructors, much of my training came together today.

I like to think of it as One Giant Leap for Dankind.

Flight Lesson #6 or "Look, Ma! No Hands!"

Two words: Mornings suck.

I usually don’t like to drag myself out of bed early for anything. If it involves standing upright like a good homo sapiens and it’s before 10am, I’ll probably grumble about it. No, I WILL grumble about it. Hell, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a 6 am until I joined the Army. I knew all about 6 “P”m, but what’s the “A”m crap?

So why the hell did I schedule a flight lesson today for 8 am?

I asked myself this question numerous times as I made my way from my warm, comfortable king-size bed to the car and to the airport. Warm under the covers? Yes. Warm outside? Not even close.

I arrive at the flight school, and meet Chris, my instructor for the day. Unlike my previous attempts at a flight lesson, the day is actually lovely. It’s a clear, calm, chilly morning just perfect for a flight lesson. After a quick check of the weather, I sit down with Chris and he starts briefing me on Flight Lesson 6. Today will be a day for running around the pattern, which means we won’t be leaving the confines of Manassas Airport and we’ll just be practicing take offs and landings. This is good, because it’s precisely the kind of practice I want and need. This kind of practice will help build confidence in my newly budding skills.

I hop in the airplane, get clearance from the tower and taxi to the end of the runway. I had experienced problems taxiing on a number of occasions, but this time it was smooth as silk. I scoot the Cessna down taxiway alpha like I had been doing it for years and park for the pre-take off checks. Once finished, I push the throttle forward and head out on the runway, wait patiently for the plane to speed up enough for the wings to start working, and then lift off smoothly to the south.

Twice I run the pattern, each time getting more comfortable. I actually feel VERY comfortable on the take off and the first three of the four legs which constitute the pattern. But the damned landing still escapes me. I am all over the place, left and right, nose up and nose down and just can’t seem to keep it steady on the center line. So Chris, as is his mission, keeps me from doing something dangerous and assists me through the first two approaches, once of which is a planned go around, and the second of which is an actual full stop landing.

Once on the ground, I ask him to show me what it’s supposed to look like so that I’ll have a better idea of what to do. He says ok, and off we go. Take off number three. I handle it up until the final approach. Once I make the right turn into the glide path for runway 16R, I spout off a hearty “You have the controls,” to which he correctly replies “I have the controls,” and he starts refining the approach.

Damned if he didn’t make it look easy! Smooth as silk. Piece of cake. Easy squeezy lemon peezy!

Ahhhh… so that’s what it’s supposed to look like!

The critique follows, and we decide to do two more landings, one go around and one full stop landing. So off we go for approach number four.

I negotiate the pattern about as well as I have and make the last turn onto final approach. I do my best to dutifully keep the nose down to keep 65 knots, the landing speed, in the airspeed indicator. I’m wobbly. Uncomfortably wobbly. But I make it over the centerline enough to have this count as a decent approach. Certainly it was not really any worse than the other two I did that morning.

Now remember, after the critique, we decided to do two more approaches, one go around and one landing. So here I am yanking back on the yoke trying to keep the airplane from landing fully expecting Chris to tell me to go around.

But he doesn’t.

As the airplane proceeds down the runway bleeding off airspeed, I am doing my best to keep things straight and level, still not my best skill. Eventually, the Cessna settles in with a significant bump, but easily within the acceptable range. I slow the aircraft and make the next safe turn off the runway and park to do the after landing checklist, and ask Chris why we didn’t do the go around.

Chris said “Eh, that was a good enough approach and I thought you should have the landing. By the way, that was all you, you know.”

I blink two or three times.

“All me?” I ask. “You mean…”

“All you. That was an unassisted landing.”

Who knew? I was so busy watching the approach that I had no idea he was sitting there, feet off the pedals and hands off the yoke.

All me.


I did it. Howzabout that?

The surprise gave way to a feeling of accomplishment which gave way to a confidence I hadn’t felt before. (“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.’”)

I did it. I took off, ran the pattern and landed all by myself. (Sorta.)

What a wonderful feeling it is to know that you’ve done something you hadn’t done before. And I am delighted that Chris chose not to tell me in advance, because NOT knowing freed me from concentrating on the “Oh crap, I am doing this all by myself for the first time!” I got to land the plane without the added pressure of the additional goal of a “first.”

Very cool. Very, very cool.