Flight Lesson #4 Canceled Again or "Fly the Friendly Skies of Manassas"

I talk to myself in the car. Actually, to be more precise I talk WITH myself in the car. They say it’s OK to talk TO yourself, but if you start answering yourself, then well, that’s something different entirely.

Those who know me even casually know that this is completely consistent with my everyday behavior. And while I’ve never been hospitalized for any sort of mental illness, nor has that been recommended, I think it’s safe to say that yeah, I know I’m a friggin’ head case.

Mostly, I talk to the radio. If it’s talk radio, I scream back or agree wholeheartedly. In either case, I’m pretty loud.

One evening some years ago, I was late to my 3-11 pm job at E! Entertainment Television. I pulled into the parking lot – or tried to, and was met with a single car whose driver had pulled up to the gated lot and parked in order to use the ATM machine in our building. Parked. In front of the gate. Not on the street, but pulled up to where you wave your badge at the little box and up goes the gate and you get in.

Needless to say, the driver had no badge, except for the ATM card, which had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the gate.

I was really late, and a little bit frazzled, and I started yelling at the top of my lungs, shouting obscenities and calling into question among other things, the size of her ass and her parentage.

Yes, I had the windows up all the way.

No I didn’t think she’d be able to hear me.

Yes, she did.

When she acknowledged that fact that I was referring to her, I got the one-fingered salute and a few choice words from her. I was overcome by my embarrassment and the overwhelming urge to rear end her car through the gate and proceed to work.

So you can see from this little bit of ancient history that I talk in the car under various circumstances and for various reasons.

Today was one of those days.

I have related before the apprehension with which I have approached the flight lessons I have had to date. But today, all the way home about every third of fourth mile from the airport to my home, I kept shouting to myself “That was fucking AWESOME!”

This was my fifth time up in the air, and the second time that I was unable to proceed to the practice area because of bad weather. Last week, I had to settle for doing take offs and landings around Manassas Airport in what I can describe accurately as one helluva lot of wind. Unlike the last time up, though, today’s winds were calm.

This instructor, Chris, was new to me. Chris is a young instructor pilot who appears at first glance to be too tall for such a small airplane. He had called me when I was on my way to the airport to tell me the practice area was closed, and when I arrived, he filled me in.

I asked if the local weather would permit me to do take offs and landings around the airport as I had the last time I was up, and he agreed, essentially saying that if I wanted to spend the money on a non-lesson, he was happy to show me around the immediate skies around Manassas Airport.

I won’t belabor the point, but the last time I went up in that awfully windy weather, it was a less than positive experience. Apart from the normal overload that is student flying, I felt completely uneasy with even being up there. So by the time I got on the ground, I was pooped, frustrated, and frankly, quite discouraged.

This time was completely different.

All the flight instructors are different. Each has his own style of instruction and his own items he checks. Chris’s style and checklist made sense to me. (Not that the others didn’t, but I believe that he teaches more like I learn.) So it was far more positive, far more productive and virtually terror free.

We did four take offs and landings. On the third landing, I said to Chris “I’m having some trouble here. Would you demonstrate what a landing is SUPPOSED to look like?” He agreed and then landed the plane as if he’s set it down on a 3,400 foot long pillow top bed. Nice and soft.

Next time around, I had the right idea, but didn’t do a whole lot better than I had done before. But at least now, I had an idea of what a good landing was supposed to look like and feel like. That was very helpful.

When we finished the lesson, we went over the lesson and he asked me questions from the academic side of my training, and I knew more of these than I had before, so I didn’t feel quite as uninformed as I had the last couple of times.

Chris was very accommodating and encouraging, and I genuinely enjoyed this lesson far greater the others I have endured. Perhaps I am just getting less inept. Perhaps today’s lesson was just the right lesson at the right time. Regardless, today was fantastic. It’s the first time I can genuinely say that I had fun flying and wanted to go again. Kind of like the roller coaster when the ride ends and you run around to the line again because you just HAVE to go again. Yeah, it was like that.

So today’s lesson summary follows: “That was fun!”

No. Not exactly right.

“It was awesome!”

Flight Lesson #4 Canceled or "It’s too damned early. Insert your own clever title here."

Prologue, 16 October:

I have reservations for both Saturday and Sunday for lessons 4 and 5 respectively, however, it looks as though the weather is likely going to prevent me from flying. I will have to be satisfied with “flying” Microsoft Flight Simulator X. It’s pretty cool now that there’s “real” controls attached to the computer. This means I don’t have to fly with a keyboard and mouse or joystick. And my base airport is in the database, so I can simulate take off and landing from the very airport from which I will be testing. And from initial toying with the software, it’s prett damned accurate.

So much so that our flight instructors recommend it. P.S. My headset arrived the other day. Woo Hoo!

17 October:

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.
The regular dogs sleeping in.
There’s a phone call ringing next to me…

DAMMIT! Who the hell is calling me at this hour? I was supposed to be sleeping in today!

It IS Saturday, and the weather is crap. That’s why Tom, the owner of the fixed base operator at which I am taking flight training, is calling. My lesson for today is cancelled due to weather. Probably tomorrow too.

I was expecting his call. I have been practicing.

I checked out AviationWeather.gov last night and discovered that we were going to be socked in until at least the start of my lesson. The aviation specific forecast, called a SIGMET (Significant Meteorological Information) told me this. So I knew ahed of time to expect a call from the school telling me to stay home today. I told Tom that I was expecting his call because of the SIGMET, and he basically chided me for not calling him earlier, because they expect the students to be proactive about weather. Well, I WAS. I just didn’t call in because:

1.) At the beginning of class, Tom told all the students that they’d notify us of cancellations due to weather, and

2.) I was sound asleep and my lesson wasn’t until 1 pm.

Most importantly, though, I learned how to read and evaluate weather forecasts well enough in ground school to predict the cancellation. Granted, the weather is REALLY crappy, so it was a no brainer, but still I was tickled that I was able to read the weather products and glean the correct answer.

Score one for the student!

(Apologies to Billy Joel.)

Flight Lesson 3 and Nearly 4 or "Brother, Can You Spare a Dramamine?"

11 & 12 October:

I booked an aircraft for 3:00 pm yesterday requesting the instructor with whom I did my first lesson. He is a former Air Force pilot with gajillions of hours experience. I learned yesterday that he took 13 YEARS off — yes, years — and hadn’t flown until just a few years back when he decided to become a certified flight instructor. That’s a long time! His history in this regard made me feel less worried about having laid off flying for a few weeks.

He could afford to. I, however, could not!

I filed my flight plan all by my lonesome, after which we did a short pre-flight lesson, and off we went. We practiced all measure of stalls, turns, take offs and landings. Some of it went very well, but when we did the stalls, I was reminded quite rudely why I don’t do roller coasters.

Stalls are a routine thing. It sounds pretty intimidating when you tell someone that your’e going out to practice a maneuver where you’re going to put the airplane in such a position that it will no longer fly. But the whole point is that you’re going to learn how to recover from it, should it happen whilst in flight.

It involves climbing rapidly and steeply, eventually exceeding the angle at which the wings work. At this point, the airflow over the wing becomes too weak and the wing stops lifting or “stalls.” There’s another version of the stall exercise where you are flying REALLY slowly as if landing, and the wing stalls and you have to apply power quickly to avoid falling like the proverbial rock. Both involve, to one degree or another, a ride that makes weak stomachs like mine decide to do little loop-de-loops of their own.

Yes, I’ve been known to get motion sick. Not violently, as in filling one of those little air sickness bags you get on the airliners. Never have done that, though I was once sitting next to someone who did. Most unpleasant. I just get REALLY queasy. And that’s where this wound up. He demonstrated all the stalls, took me through them together, then on my own. By the time I had done a few of each, I finally had to tell him to take us straight and level for a few minutes so I could recover. He was kind enough to do so, and off we went to the training airfield near Warrenton, VA.

We did four take offs and landings into Warrenton’s airfield, a small uncontrolled airfield about 8 or ten miles (I think!) from Manassas, my home airport. (Gee, kinda cool. I have a home airport now! Whodathunk it?) Finally calmed down from the motion sickness, I did a couple of the take offs myself, the last one being far better than I expected I would be able to do. Landings are still a little intimidating, but they DO come in pairs, these take offs and landings. One without the other is.. well, messy.

Overall, I was pleased with the lesson yesterday, but learned VERY quickly that this is a perishable skill. Not flying for three weeks was probably the WORST possible thing I could have done to myself as far as flight training goes. I expected to experience a setback, but I was really quite surprised at how much set back I was. This will not happen again voluntarily.

I also booked a lesson for this afternoon with Brad, my ground school instructor. I like Brad. He’s smart, likes a good joke, and has the same morbid fascination with fatal air disasters that I do.

Sidebar: I have these dreams. Not recurring, per se, because the circumstances are always different. But they are always very vivid, and always very exciting. In the dream, I witness an air crash. Usually the big planes. I don’t see the devastation up close, but I see the aircraft either strike the ground from a distance, or disappear behind an obstacle and see the fireball. The last thing I usually remember is seeing it, uttering the obligatory “Oh my god!” or some such expression and running toward the accident.

Brad experiences something similar.

Sidebar within a sidebar: I saw a stage play once entitled “CVR.” It was an on-stage recreation of air disasters as if you were standing in the cockpit with the pilots. The “script” is taken from the actual cockpit voice recordings (hence, “CVR”) and the events are performed in real time. It’s a little creepy, but I recommend it.

Anyway, I did the preflight checks while Brad was with his previous student. I then went in for my lesson before take off and we spent a good 20 minutes going over the lesson for the day and some previous material from ground school I should have remembered but didn’t. Then, out to the plane.

I reviewed the preflight checklist with Brad, and we hopped in. I did the engine start up checklist and turned the key. (Airplanes have keys, believe it or not. I had no idea!) So far, I was doing admirably. It was a good thing to be feeling more confident about the training I had received. Brad said “Ok, do your brake check and hold.” So I edged the throttle forward until the wheels started to move and then tapped the toe breaks and stopped the plane quite adeptly. Next, Brad said to make the call to Manassas ground control so we could get going.

I depressed the radio’s transmit button and said confidently “Manassas Ground, Cessna 8191-Echo at the West Ramp with Bravo. Taxi VFR Southwest.” Perfect. Just like it should have been. The ground controller responded with the appropriate information which I dutifully copied down on my clipboard holding the pre-printed form I designed just for that purpose. Yeah, this was working fine. Brad was even impressed.

Just then, one of the other flight instructors, Fayek, who had taught our ground school the first week, grabbed Brad’s attention and pointed out that the nose wheel tire was a little under inflated. After a hand-signal conference, Fayek finally convinced Brad to shut down the engine and have a look. Upon quick inspection beforehand, neither Brad nor I saw the problem. But Fayek had seen the airplane with the propeller spinning which pulls the nose of the Cessna 172 down, essentially squishing the tire and revealing the lack of adequate pressure in the tire.

Damn.

I was doing so well, too.

Unfortunately, Brad had another student immediately following the time I had reserved, so there was not enough time to fix whatever was wrong with the tire AND get in a lesson. So we decided to postpone the lesson until later in the week.

I was genuinely disappointed. I was looking forward to flying with Brad, because from my perspective, he and I think a lot alike, and have very similar teaching styles. (Yes, I used to teach high school and college many moons ago.) So I will have to reschedule this lesson.

But the day was by NO means wasted. I gained a great deal of confidence with pre-flight procedures. During the before take off review with Brad, I got a chance to learn that it was unwise to do a brain dump of the ground school subjects, because they WILL be asked of you later by the FAA examiner. I learned that having more eyes on a situation lessens your chance of a problem or a disaster, so it’s good that someone else was looking at that front tire. (Though this is not really a new lesson. I am always happy to have passengers in the car with me warn me of impending calamities. I will NEVER be angry at anyone for being a “back seat” driver in a car I’m driving. Seems as though this is sound advice for the aviation world as well.)

After all, it’s one thing to dream about an air disaster. It’s another thing entirely to actually BE in one.

Work From Home Friday #1 or "Your Clue Phone is Off The Hook"

Prologue – 8 October:

I’ve been at a trade show all week on the exhibit floor, and haven’t had much time to do anything else. But I DID complete the second written exam. Just like the other one: take home, open book. I forgot all about it and rushed home from work and knocked it out in about an hour or so.

Out of 25 questions, I missed 3 for a grand total of 88%. All of the errors were “RTFP” errors, in that I would have gotten the right answer had a read the effin’ problem correctly.

That’s what I get for rushing through it.

9 October:

I think I may have a clue.

No, not the kind of clue that makes navigating the big mine field of life a breeze, but a teeny-tiny, little clue. It’s about why I still feel a little apprehensive about hopping in the plane and getting back up in the air.

To be fair to myself, and I am often not, I have been busy. I’ve had some events that were on the calendar way before I started training, and this week, I spent four days at a hyuuuuuge conference which took a lot of extra time and energy. So it’s fair to say that it’s OK that I haven’t flown in a couple of weeks.

Today was a “work at home” day, which because of the extra hours I put in these last couple of weeks, translates to a “be available” day. I was. Available, that is. I spent part of the morning up in town having my photo taken for a security badge. (The commute took longer than getting the badge.) So I’ve definitely done my part for God and country and I feel no guilt with having spent about an hour or so out at the airport this afternoon.

Last night was ground school class 10. We were learning how to compute weight and balance for our particular aircraft. Most of it was pretty straightforward, but at one point, there was a whole gaggle of numbers on the white board (remember when they were “black boards?” That’s not racist, is it? Just checkin’.) representing various qualities required in the computation.

I was a math major for awhile. Something like four years. Numbers don’t intimidate me. Much. I flunked out over abstract stuff — Abstract Algebra to be precise. Anyway, I was completely following the discussion and the notations on the blackboard, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. All I saw were trees, not the forest. I fully grokked the idea of interpolation and extrapolation and approximations and mathematical significance which my classmate Jim and I discussed sotto voce during the lecture. But I’ll be damned if I could divine the MEANING of the numbers and SEE their interrelation. The big picture escaped me completely.

It got me to thinking, what IS it that bugs me? Why is it that understanding but not Understanding (with a capital “U”, if you know what I mean) bugs the shit out of me. Why is it so frustrating? Why is it so disconcerting? Why does it frighten me?

Armed with this observation from class last night and its associated question, I wondered why it felt so similar to the frustration I’ve been having with the flight lessons. I can’t seem to see the forest for the trees there, either. Then it hit me:

You’re a STUDENT, you idiot — you’re not SUPPOSED to see the forest just yet!

Seems as though I put the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse. I damned the torpedoes. I failed to remember the Alamo. But mostly, I was being far too hard on myself for not understanding that I wasn’t understanding what I shouldn’t have been understanding in the first place.

Capiche?

It’s ok. I know what I meant, and really that’s what’s important.

Back to today. I spent some time out at the airport purchasing yet another damn reference manual and spending yet another damn $45.00. So I took an hour or so just watching planes take off and land and listening to the communications among the aircraft and the tower, just one source of angst among many. And I just watched and listened. Watched and listened. I allowed the bigger picture of take off, landing and tower comms just wash over me. No effort. No puzzling and puzzling until my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn’t before:

Relax. Let my brain do it’s job. It’ll inform me just as soon as it has all the puzzle pieces necessary for me to identify the picture. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, the picture takes shape long before the puzzle’s complete. But it takes more than just a few pieces.

And I’ll find all I need. One at a time. The instructors have them all and want ME to have them as well.

I just need to be patient and allow myself to relish in the joy of learning.

I’ve always believed that the epitome of human experience is not wealth, fame, sex or power. For all their obvious charm, these things are genuinely fleeting. I believe the singularly most amazing experience is that flash when the light finally dawns. That very moment when understanding actually occurs. When you answer your very own clue phone. There’s absolutely no feeling quite like having all of those little neurons lining up to produce understanding. And none better. It can’t be forced, but it WILL happen all in due course.

I can’t deny myself that feeling by putting up artificial obstacles. I absolutely must place myself in the proper situation to allow it to happen just as it should happen.

I just need to get the hell out of my way.

Flight Lesson #3 Canceled or "You Are Now Cleared for Final Approach-Avoidance."

Has it really come to this? Have the events of these last years shaken my confidence so deeply? Or have I always been paralyzed by the possibility of failure?

It’s easy to ignore in everyday life. You get into a routine and establish a sort of procedural equilibrium that keeps you on track and is moderately self-correcting. Kind of like a gyroscope that resists change to its spin around the three axes. If you stay out too late, yeah, you suffer for a day or two, but your mind and body recover quickly and you get back in the routine in relatively short order. Other things take a little longer, but only a little. Like vacations. Go away for two weeks and see how much longer it takes to get back in the swing of things. Usually you’re at about ninety percent by the time the jet lag wears off. That’s not so tough to handle.

So why did I spend all week trying to find excuses to cancel my flight lesson today?

I know at least some of it had to do with the fact that I hadn’t done my part by putting in the additional study time to approach it confidently. But hell, I can memorize radio frequencies and learn radio communications “scripts.” Hell, I used to memorize whole three-act plays without an enormous about of trouble, so I know it’s not an uphill battle to shoehorn the necessary information into my head.

So why did I spend all week trying to find excuses to cancel my flight lesson today?

Get this: I took the dogs out this morning for their respective excretory reductions in mass and liquid, and looking up at the cloudy, grey sky, half of me thought “Oh, thank GOD the weather’s lousy! I won’t have to fly.”

HAVE to fly?

I’m supposed to be WANTING to fly. In fact, I am paying a shit load of money to BE ABLE to fly.

So why did I spend all day trying to find excuses to cancel my flight lesson today?

Once I finally got out of bed around nine-ish, I looked outside. Perfect day. And we’d just had our ground school classes on weather, so I was pretty confident that a cloudless, blue sky and calm winds would not prohibit me from going off into the wild blue yonder. “Ok, I can do this,” I think to myself. “Let me run some errands and I’ll still have oodles of time to get my act together.”

So I got to Target and buy a book bag for all my aviation references for class. I stop by and check on the RV, and then call the Toyota dealership and see if they can fit me in for my 85,000 mile service. They are kind enough to do so, and I head over. “OK, there’s still time. If I get out of there in short order, I’ll still be able to make it.”

After about 45 minutes, Eddie, the service writer I’ve known for awhile comes in and tells me that their nineteen point inspection showed that I needed a new water pump, and serpentine belt.

“How long will this take?” I ask mind rushing through rough calculations of time and distance. Can I get all this done and still make the lesson at 4?

Eddie assures me that it won’t take too long and if it’s going to take longer than normal, he’ll let me know so I can cancel.

So why did I decide to use the water pump replacement as my excuse to cancel my flight lesson today?

I had the time. I had the skill to do the lesson. I was soon to have the now fully functional Prius chomping at the bit to demonstrate its new-found health by whisking me to Manassas Airport by 4pm.

Why was I so relieved when I called and canceled?

This is perplexing from the perspective of logic. There was no good reason NOT to go, and I made it a point to stretch an “emergency” auto repair into a good enough reason to avoid flying.

Needless to say, I am neither pleased with my decision nor myself. This is unacceptable behavior. I knew this all along. Yet, a part of my brain decided that for whatever reason, it wasn’t going to happen.

Check that. Reason and my brain played no roles in this decision.

OK, time for take two.

This will not happen again. I will not allow myself to avoid flying again. I will not permit whatever insecurities, fear of failure, fear of success, or chicken-shit cloud forms around my head to impede my better judgment. I KNOW better. I cannot allow myself the luxury of another such failure.

I didn’t used to be like this. Challenging tasks didn’t paralyze me. They were exhilarating. I never avoided things because they were hard or frightening. I’ve jumped out of jet aircraft, for crying out loud!

What the fuck happened?

Here I stand, looking around and wondering what happened.

It’s up to me to keep this one little failure from becoming an epic one.

Ground School Examination #1 or "If You Don’t Know the Answer, Just Circle ‘B’"

I discovered last night just how many books and other study guides you can fit on a king size mattress.

Check that. I discovered last night just how many books, other study guides, MacBook Pro’s and DOGS you can fit on a king size mattress.

I spend a lot of time in bed. Well, technically ON the bed not IN it. And not for the two REALLY obvious reasons that people are in bed: watching “The Tonight Show” and reading the Sunday paper. (Well not so much “The Tonight Show” since Conan O’Brien took over.)

Last night, however, was the night before the big test. And I was WAY behind the power curve and knew it. So I dashed home after work prepared to do nothing else but review the material, fill in the little dots on the test form and then settle down for a long winter’s nap, even though it’s only September.

I gathered the 40-plus pounds of books, maps, charts and other reference materials and plopped them on the bed making sure to choose the ones undoubtedly containing the answers. I gathered the unused-to-date flash cards as well, figuring that if I went through these while I was working the test questions, I would be able to reinforce my learning.

But not until I took a power nap. Just a quick one.

So I closed my eyes and relaxed. My eyelids were already heavy during the commute home, so there was absolutely no problem relaxing.

I was awakened with sloppy dog kisses as Chloe, the smallest of the three, decided to join the other two on the bed. But not, of course, without her official greeting and demand for affection. Of course, she trampled across the flash cards and sheets of paper scattering both about the duvet. (There! I’ve finally done it. I’ve worked the word “duvet” into a casual sentence. I think I’ll pat myself on the back for that one.)

Once I got Chloe settled in her little bit of mattress real estate, I sat up, opened the test booklet and dove in again. I should mention here that I did some of the questions earlier at an undisclosed location, so I didn’t have to start from scratch. There were three or four questions from earlier which I had serious trouble understanding. And they knew it. Those were intimidating questions. I could hear them laughing and mocking me from inside the test booklet. Just as I turned to the page on which they were printed, I could hear them say to each other “Shhhh! Shhhh! Here he comes – act naturally!” and reminding me just how half-baked this test this really was.

Out of fifty questions, I answered most correctly from memory. I also double checked my answers against the printed materials, and then corrected the ones I missed. But these last few questions weren’t going willingly. No sir, they were going to withhold their answers as long as they could until reinforcements arrived.

One was a question of logic involving altimeter settings, and I won’t bore you with the details. But when I thought about it, not only was it painful, but for some reason, my brain went into a do-loop (as opposed to a loop-de-loop) and I just couldn’t see the answer clearly. I got the math right on the first try, but the “why” of it was escaping me.

The others were all regarding classes of airspace and reading maps and charts.

I can’t tell you how many times I scribbled “RTFP!” (Read the effin’ problem) next to the offending questions in a futile attempt to force the demise of ambiguity and rescue the truth from among the other two “answers.”

But it was not to be.

Even though I will pass the test, it was a humbling experience which reminded me why I hated college. I never studied then and I flunked out of both the math and the physics departments. And just like in college, I tried to take the shortcut to the solution by relying on my own perspicacity rather than the tried and true method: studying in advance.

So I am still a little confused about airspace and altimeters. But it’s become painfully clear to me that old (study) habits die hard. The truth is, I’m a lousy student and to succeed at this course, I will have to… let’s say modify my habits so that I can prevent the desperation of an exam.

But learning is supposed to be about rescuing the truth, isn’t it? Finding the correct answer? Seems as though I rediscovered the truth about my study habits, another lesson I’ve learned that wasn’t in the course syllabus. One I could have remembered and avoided.

Seems as though I had the answer to THAT question all along.

Ground School Week #3 or “I’ll Take Potpourri for $200, Alex.”

No flying this weekend. Previous engagements precluding sleep well into the wee hours of the weekend make for unsafe flying. So I’ll wait a week or so to get back up in the air. Work will provide some obstacles until the end of NEXT week. Then I am going to start flying at least twice a week, if I can sustain it financially.

First written test on Tuesday. Open book, to be completed before class. Sounds way too easy, so I MUST be missing something. I’ll be very meticulous in filling out the mark sense form!