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!

Ground Lesson #5 or "I Used to Think that the Most Intimidating Thing on the Planet Was Hot Women."

Let me start by saying that yes, I’m still having fun at ground school. But at times, I think my poor little brain has exceeded its capacity to store and retrieve information.

But back to the subject at hand. Women intimidate me. It’s true. I see a tall, gorgeous hottie (Or even a short one. Ok, ALL of them.), and I break out in a cold sweat. I stammer and stutter my way through conversation when all I REALLY want to do is just stare. And drool. But we’ll leave out the description of mucosal secretions for another discussion.

Since Ground Lesson #5 last night, all of the hot women of the world are now safe from being covered in Dan drool. I found something far more intimidating than y’all.


Yes, airspace.

What I mean by “airspace” is the classification of various areas in which aircraft operate. It’s different over airports. It’s different over open terrain. And it’s different around big cities. But that’s just the beginning. For each of the six (if memory serves) classes of airspace, there are nine requirements which must be strictly observed for EACH of the six classes. (Enough of the memory crap – I had to look that one up.) It makes for a chart that’s obviously nine by six, or 54 different things to memorize. And that doesn’t count the “except on alternate Tuesdays” or the “if the weather’s crappy, this doesn’t apply.” Oh, no! No such luck that it would be simple and straightforward. I don’t know why I would expect such simplicity from an agency of the federal government, but that, too, is another discussion.

Ok, I can do this. I can memorize this. I’m not THAT old yet. Flash cards – yeah, flash cards is the way to do this!


You mean I have to be able to APPLY this to charts and maps, too?


Sidebar: When I lived in Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to live next door to the Penthouse Pet of the Month for September, 1992 or some such. For the first months I lived next door, every time she walked past the kitchen window in full model regalia, meaning short-shorts, heels and a clingy tank top, I’d drop whatever was in my hand. I’d just forget I was holding on to a plate full of spaghetti and meatballs and down it went, the victim of both gravity and my own hormonal imbalance. I was in the pool one sunny California afternoon, and when I looked up after diving in the water, there she was lounging luxuriously at water’s edge in a Harley Davidson one piece bathing suit. I was stuck in the water until she left. Damn good thing it was cold water, too. (Didn’t help at all that her bedroom and mine shared a common wall.) Anyway you get the point.

Trying to figure out airspace is much more difficult than talking to my neighbor would have been had I ever worked up the nerve to talk to her. The study of airspace redefines “difficult” for me.

Here’s an example: “Generally, if the airspace is not Class A, Class B, Class C, or Class D, and it is controlled airspace, it is Class E airspace. Class E airspace extends upward from either the surface or a designated altitude to the overlying or adjacent controlled airspace. When designated as a surface area, the airspace will be configured to contain all instrument procedures. Also in this class are Federal airways, airspace beginning at either 700 or 1,200 feet AGIL used to transition to/from the terminal or enroute environment, enroute domestic, and offshore airspace areas designated below 18,000 feet MSL. Unless designated at a lower altitude, Class E airspace begins at 14,500 MSL over the United States, including that airspace overlying the waters within 12 nautical miles of the coast of the 48 contiguous States and Alaska. Class E airspace does not include the airspace 18,000 MSL or above.”

And a partridge in a fucking pear tree. (And I thought the thousand-page-plus Health Care bill was hard to fathom.)

So hot women of the world, here’s to you! It’s been nice and it’s been fun, but you’ve been replaced. You’re no longer the most intimidating thing on the planet. I can deal with you now. But let not your heart be troubled: this won’t last long. Because once I get the hang of airspace definitions, I have no doubt you’ll be returned to your rightful place at the top of the “scares the shit out of me” list.

That’s because once I understand airspace, it won’t be a problem anymore.

But I’ll never understand women.

Flight Lesson #2 or "I’m Glad They Put Shock Absorbers on Airplanes!"

Yeah, you see this one coming, I suspect. But here goes anyway…

I flew yesterday afternoon. It was another perfect day here in Virginia. I arrived early, dropped off a check for flight hours at the front desk and sat in the classroom reviewing the stuff I should have reviewed the night before. From this, I concluded that my study habits haven’t changed a lick since college. I suppose there’s some comfort in consistency.

Anyway, at about 12:25, about 25 minutes after the scheduled time, my instructor lands with one of my fellow students, We exchange insincerities and head off to the cubicle where the flight instructor hangs his hat. (Or wings. Not sure what the correct aviation analogy is. I guess we haven’t covered that chapter in ground school yet.)

After a VERY VERY almost unsettlingly VERY short pre-brief, he says “Go file your flight plan. I’ll observe.” I had only seen this done once, but dutifully got on the phone with the disembodied voice of the woman who does whatever it is she does with the flight plan. Check. No problem. I look over to get the thumbs up from the instructor, and he’s on the cell phone. I chose to interpret this as a sign of confidence in my abilities, though I think he was just ordering pizza or some such triviality.

Out the plane and up the air we go. I learned a LOT from this guy. He’s very good, though it was tough to hear his soft voice through the intercom.

We did turns and talked about level flight and ascents and descents and all sort of things, then headed back. And, of course, it was up to me to line it up and get it on the ground. Which I did, albeit with a startling bump.

So here’s the deal, I think. You know when you’re learning basic stuff, somethings are SO basic that the teacher, who’s been doing it for decades, doesn’t even think to mention it?

I still don’t think anyone’s told me exactly how to land a goddamned plane yet!

It’s kind of important.

I have seen it done now a few times, but no one has ever sat down and laid out the proper steps for my poor little brain to put in sequence and follow. I can even dance when I’m choreographed. Why didn’t someone think to tell me how to land? I could probably do that, too, if someone would just freakin’ tell me!

It was a case of not knowing what you don’t know and not knowing which questions to ask in advance of the necessity of the knowledge. It’s a little late to ask “Hey, how DO you get one of these things on the ground anyway?” when you’re on final approach.

So it bounced. And bounced hard. The impact startled and surprised me, though in retrospect, it shouldn’t have. After all, I flew the effin’ thing right into the runway. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The instructor must have thought I had it under control, ’cause he was startled as well. But he took charge and got it all back under control and the rest of the procedure was just fine.

It was still a blast. I got high marks for the day with the instructor even saying that I might be a little ahead of the other students, so I must be doing something right. But I learned a valuable lesson.

Quoting from Don Rumsfeld, “… we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

It sounds like gobbledygoop and bureaucratic doublespeak. But in this rare case, I think he got it right. In the case of my attempt to land the tiny little aircraft, I was in the realm of “the one(s) we don’t know we don’t know.”

Ok, he was almost right. He forgot to add “… but should.”

Training at Home #1 or “How to Connect a Wedding Gift for The Best Reception.”

About six or eight years ago, I performed the wedding ceremony for two of my close friends and coworkers out in Los Angeles. A little known law allows anyone to perform wedding ceremonies for 24 hours upon the appropriate training and certification. Anyhow, I flew out to LA, got trained, did the ceremony and of course, a large party ensued. Shortly thereafter, I got a package from Max, the groom and coworker with whom I had worked on the same shift for many years. Now Max has always had an aviation interest, and we always thought it would be fun to take flight lessons together. Then I moved here. Anyway, after the wedding, I get this package. I open it, and it’s a quite expensive hand held aviation radio – a walkie talkie for coordinating flight instructions with the tower!

I was quite taken aback by the lavishness of this generous gift. Unfortunately, it has been sitting at home underutilized all these years, except when I pull it out to see what I can pick up. With the renewed interest and my enrollment in flight school, I pulled it out a few days ago and looked it over. The battery’s shot. I can fix that. Otherwise, it works great! So yesterday, I bring it to work with me and try to listen to the chatter from the aircraft while I am going by National Airport. I didn’t get shit in the morning, so last night, I stopped in the cell phone waiting area, shut down the car and tried again. Lo and behold, I can read the aviation chart (it has the appropriate frequencies on it) correctly – sorta – and I started to hear the 737’s, 757’s and other airliners coming and going from National. I sat there for about 20-30 minutes figuring it out, and then booted up the Prius and headed down the road.

Now being the former physics geek I am, it occurred to me that this radio – this little radio my pal Max gave me in 2003 – operated in the VHF band, defined as 30 – 300 mHz. I just put a new TV antenna up on the roof which is ALSO a VHF antenna as well as a UHF antenna. Hmmmm…. I sez to myself. I wonder if I would be able to pick up the area airports if I hook the highly amplified TV antenna to the aviation walkie talkie?

So I dash over to Radio Shack (now rebranding as “The Shack.” Dumbest. Change. Ever.) and bought the right connecter, BNC, to be specific and headed home. I made a 3-foot cable which would interface with both the TV antenna on the roof AND my aviation radio.

Voila! I can hear much of the tower chatter from Dulles Airport and a little from National! Howzabout that? All that damned college finally paid off!

So now I can listen in and learn the right radio procedures from the folks who do it every day.

All for about two bucks.

Flight Lesson #1 or “The Hand Grenade”

More news about my education in aviation, for both of you keeping score at home. lol…

Today was the first honest-to-goodness, up-in-the-air flight lesson. It started with a significantly long class and briefing. Then the instructor took me out to the little Cessna 172 and did the pre-flight. I learned a TON just during the pre-flight, but the real learning experience came when just as we started the take off roll, the instructor said “Ok, you take off.”

Initially, I thought me meant “take off” like in “Oh, take off, hoser!” ya know, like Bob and Doug MacKenzie? But nope. He actually expected me to pull back gently on the yoke so I did. And the little plane lifted effortlessly into the clear afternoon.

I’ve told a few people already that the sensation was a little like one I experienced in my early Army training. We were on the grenade course, and had been playing with grenade simulators all day. Finally, they take you into the real range, hand you a live grenade and tell you to pull the pin. At that instant, you realize that, uh oh!, there’s a friggin’ LIVE hand grenade in my hand!

It’s kind of like that.

Screwing up in either case would be an eventful proposition, so in today’s case, I tried to concentrate on what I was doing.

The big lesson from today was that there’s an AWFUL lot going on, and I am at the moment, incapable of handling all the sensory input, the instruments, comm and all of that. It’s really quite overwhelming and intimidating. I kept thinking to myself “I’ll never be able to process all this AND have fun at the same time.” But like anything else, it’s a matter of practice and more practice.

I really enjoy the academic part of the training. I suppose that’s because failure in the classroom has such a lesser consequence. I definitely learned that it’s serious business when you’re actually in the air.

It was a most challenging day in that regard. So far, so good, though.

I have LOTS of homework to do!

By the way, I also had the chance to attend their customer appreciation day picnic on Saturday and got to interact with a number of pilots at various stages of their training. All of them made the same recommendation.

I am doing ground school and flight training at the same FBO. So there’s a great deal of continuity of training between the two.

And I am VERY glad that I chose to do the ground school as a classroom option rather than self study. I would recommend taking a class as opposed to computer based study ANY day!

And thanks to y’all for the feedback and advice!

I did the high wing today. Cessna 172S (I believe!) Fuel injected not carburetor.