Saturday, December 31, 2005


The Year of the Yellowbird - 2005

2005 was a busy year for the Yellowbird. It saw a number of new milestones, new friends made (and lost) and the fulfillment of a goal that was part of my justification for owning an airplane.

First, the statistics. We flew a total of 168 hours, well above my budget of 100 hours per year. January and December were the leanest months, both seeing few than five hours due to the winter weather, and September was the busiest with nearly 32 hours. New personal records were set for altitude (12,000 feet MSL) and groundspeed (187 mph). Fourteen new airports were explored, and 213 takeoffs and landings were made. A little over 1,500 gallons of 100LL avgas were consumed, and you don't want to know how much that cost.

We seemed to spend a lot of time at the vetYellowbird was an expensive girl in other respects. Her annual airworthiness inspection was relatively painless, but a thorough engine examination during a routine oil change revealed leaks in her muffler, and the rigors of instrument training showed that her attitude indicator and transponder were no longer up to the task. All three were replaced, and she's a happier and healthier bird for it, but it wasn't cheap.

Yellowbird and one of her siblings at LancasterTwenty new friends were carried aloft, including my father, who is the only family member to date to have ridden in the Yellowbird. She also met up with some old friends and many members of her extended family at for our first Cardinal Flyers flyin. Sadly, one of Yellowbird's new friends, Good Buddy Pete, was fatally injured in a tragic accident in July. He is still dearly missed.

In June we started flight training toward the instrument rating, and passed the checkride in December. The frequent training flights were the reason for exceeding our hourly flying budget for the year, and included 63 hours flown in simulated instrument conditions and 13 flown in actual. The pursuit and completion of the instrument rating were among my reasons for buying Yellowbird nearly two years ago.

The completion of the instrument rating was a major milestone for the year, and I hope to be able to make use of it for many years to come. It came at a considerable cost in time, effort, and resources expended, and the valuable training and experience gained should be worth the expense. Yet, for all that was put into the preparations, I suspect that the memory of my checkride will soon fade into the general blur that has encompassed the prior six months of training lessons.

Dad at the controlsThe memories that will remain for years are the ones of the special moments that Yellowbird and I shared with friends and with each other: the look on Good Buddy Pete's face as I gave him the controls and let him steer Yellowbird down the shore of the Quabbin Reservoir, the time shared with my father as we flew up and down the Hudson River on a perfectly smooth late spring evening, the sight of a distant summer thunderstorm lighting up the night sky on the return from a dinner trip to Jaffery with a friend, and our first flight of the year on a bitterly cold day in January when we forgot, for a short time, the frustrations and disappointments of life and found peace in the delicate balance of thrust, drag, lift, and weight that make up the miracle of flight.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Two Years Ago Today

(Reprinted from a post on the message board)

Things don't always work out the way we would like them to. It would have been great to have earned my pilot's certificate on the centennial of the first flight, but the New England winter weather had other plans.

It would also have been nice to have passed my checkride with a flawless performance, but... read on for the full story:

Since yesterday morning, we'd been keeping an eye on the weather for today. Overcast, snow flurries, and strong winds dominated the hourly forecast, so I wasn't surprised to see all three in evidence when I drove to work this morning. It did look promising for the afternoon, with partly cloudy skies predicted, but those winds just weren't looking to relax. George called around 10:00 and felt that it was still doable. If he has confidence in me, than I'll try to agree. But I still had memories of Saturday's bump-a-thon, and I wasn't looking forward to the same for my checkride. Back at home, I logged on to the AOPA/Jeppesen Online Flight Planner (highly recommended, by the way) and got a fresh weather briefing. My theoretical destination (KMPV) was under marginal VFR condition, due to snow and low visibility, but locally, things were nicely VFR. I noticed with some concern that a NOTAM indicated that KBAF's runway 15/33 (the closest to the prevailing winds) was closed. I updated my cross-country navigation log with the latest wind forecast, and printed out an updated flight plan form. Herb (my examiner) had approved of both yesterday, but I wanted to have the latest information reflected in both.

I arrived at the airport early, put the space heater in the cockpit to warm it up, and listened to the ATIS over the hand-held transceiver while I waited for George. ATIS called the winds at 310, 15 gusting to 29, which was worse than the 14 to 19 in the METAR from my earlier briefing, but thankfully I noticed that 33 was in use after all. George showed up soon, and we discussed the winds. He felt confident that I could handle them, and I tried to lean on his confidence. He was going to call the ASOS number on his cell phone when it rang. It was Herb, and he was on his way.

George drove back to the office while I fired up Papa Tango to taxi over to the terminal. Sitting in the cockpit, I noticed the wind buffeting the plane around. It wasn't as bad as it had been on Saturday. I took some comfort from that.

Back at the office, George and I killed some time while we waited for Herb. While we talked, we kept an eye on the wind sock, which seemed determined to helpfully point out all of the compass points that were not associated with actual runway headings.

Herb showed up shortly, and after reviewing my updated flight plans, we went out to preflight. I was careful to follow the checklist while under his watchful eye, even to the point of observing that there were no tie-down ropes to remove, (Papa Tango lives in a hangar and is rarely outside unattended long enough to warrant tying down) and that the oil was due for a change (George was planning on doing this after our flight).

Once we settled down in the cockpit, I noted the updated ATIS, and after organizing and adjusted everything that had need, we started up. Ground initially gave us runway 2, but quickly reconsidered and gave us taxi clearance to 33. It was a long taxi, and I was careful to apply the correct control positions for the quartering tailwind. (I'm starting to sound like the guy in the Jeppesen manual.) After runup I called the tower and received clearance to take off. The tower helpfully provided the latest winds which were, for once, right down the runway.

On the runway I paused to set the heading indicator again, and started the timer (the one thing I had constantly forgotten to do during my test prep lessons.) As soon as we started to roll, I could tell that the wind had another heading more to its liking. The airspeed indicator came alive, and in short order, we were airborne.Papa Tango immediately wanted to veer to the right, but I leveled off, and crabbed leftward into the wind while trying to hold attitude for 80 mph. (Papa Tango was born before knots were invented.) At 1000 ft., I turned to my calculated heading, and went under the hood.

Herb had something different in store compared to what I had been told to expect. Instead of having me climb to me theoretical cruise altitude (5,500) he asked me to level off at 2,500, while reducing power to maintaining climb airspeed. I understood this to mean that he wanted 80 mph until we reached the spot on the chart where we would have normally reached cruise altitude, so after six minutes on the timer, I went to cruise power. What he had really wanted, was for me to maintain 80 mph until reaching the first checkpoint. Once we cleared up that confusion, I slowed back down and went back to work trying to hold heading, altitude, and airspeed, while the wind tried to defeat me in all three areas.

After nine minutes on the timer, I looked up and noted that we had just crossed the first checkpoint, (Route 9 at Northampton) on time, and maybe a mile or so east of the plotted track. The rest of the hood-work covered unusual attitudes, and given the turbulence, Herb was a little more conservative in setting these up than George had been on Tuesday.

After the hood, we cleared the area and did slow flight (clean, no flaps) and departure stalls. Papa Tango has a healthy heart for a climb, and you can almost hang on the prop at full power. Herb had me do a second departure stall at 2,000 rpm, something I had not done before.

We did one steep turn, which earned me a "well done" from Herb, and then the power came off and we looked for a theoretical emergency landing spot. A plowed field, with snow, ice, and standing water was the only decent choice, so I set us up for a left pattern. The furrows were right into the wind, but I let that wind carry us a bit to far on the downwind leg. After turning final, Herb powered back up and I observed that I probably would not have made the field.

I wasn't happy with the turns around a point, either. The wind was strong, and with the turbulence coming off the nearby hills, I had trouble keeping the altitude within the standards. Herb had me tune the Westfield VOR while in the turn, and after rolling out on the appropriate radial we headed home.

The tower directed us for a right base approach to 33, and I noticed a very strong downwind drift as we crossed the ridge east of the field. Turning final I was at a loss trying to determine the wind's direction so that I could apply crosswind correction. It wasn't the most precise approach, and I was struggling to hold airspeed and glide path when a gust of wind knocked us well to the right of the runway centerline. AT this point, I was ready to go around, and announced my intentions to Herb. He had more confidence in our situation, and taking the controls, he brought us down to the runway in perfect control. As I called to tower to announce our go-around, Herb took us back up and entered a left pattern for 33 again.

Under the reign of Herb's fifty-plus years of piloting, Papa Tango behaved herself, and after setting us up on final, Herb gave the controls back to me.

We crossed the threshold well enough, but as soon as I flared, the wind caught us again and we had a good amount of rightward drift when the wheels met the runway.

It was probably the worst landing I have ever done.

The PPL Photo Op I felt pretty low as we taxied back to the terminal, and I was preparing myself for the worst, and already looking forward to the chance to do it all again on a better day, but George met us at the terminal with a big grin, and Herb had a big grin, and when George brought out the camera, Herb gave no indication that photos were not in order. After the pictures were taken and handshakes exchanged, he said: "Let's go inside and finish the paperwork."

(Herb's the one with the glasses. I'm the one with the bump on my head, from hitting the lowered left flap during preflight. It still hurts.)

So, that's how I became a Private Pilot, after six month and ten days, and with 71 hours (25 of that solo) in the logbook. Honestly, I wouldn't have passed myself on this flight, but Herb apparently saw enough of my ability in the things that I did right to convince himself that I was capable.

"Any monkey can fly a plane in good weather.." he told me, before digressing to the story of an air force pilot who, rather than stand endless watches on the tarmac in his P-51, dressed a monkey in a flight suit and put it in the cockpit. (The monkey, according to the story, was eventually promoted to general and landed a job in the Pentagon before anyone caught on.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Checkride Day

Blogging has been light for the last several weeks as I was busy finishing up the IFR training in hopes of wrapping it up before the end of the year. That would satisfy two birds with one checkride, as the IFR checkride would also meet the requirements for my biennial flight review, which would otherwise fall due this month. The IFR training has taken up most of my flying time since I started in earnest in May, and by the end of October, the essential training requirements had been met, and it was only a matter of polishing things up while looking for a good date for the checkride. November was not a promising month, as my work schedule combined with the Thanksgiving holiday allowed few opportunities to take time off. The late autumn weather, with the lowering freezing levels, also kept me grounded on a few days that otherwise would have seen good IFR conditions. Faithful Instructor George and I did manage to get some productive hood time in, including one weekend were we flew four times and logged about six hours of simulated instrument time. It was good practice, but I was eager to get the checkride done, and occasionally uncertain of my chances of keeping my skills sufficiently rust-free if the early December weather proved unflyable. George seemed a bit more confident in my abilities, but as we made preparations to schedule the checkride, I couldn't help but feel a little nervous.

We tentatively scheduled Checkride Day for Friday, Decemebr 2nd, with Thursday as a possible backup in case of weather. Looking at the advance forecasts, Thursday was looking like a better option, but I was in a training class at work all week and wasn't too sure of the practicality of skipping out early.

As the week progressed, the forecast for Friday promised snow flurries and high winds - mid teens gusting to upper thirties, out of the west. That would put a healthy crosswind to all of the local approaches, not to mention the low-level terrain-induced turbulence. I didn't consider these to be unsafe conditions, but with only a few hours of turbulent time under the hood, I would have preferred smoother skies for the checkride. I actually called the FAA designated pilot examiner (DE) on Tuesday to see about moving things up to Thursday, but he was already booked for the day, so we were committed at least to the orals.

I had planned on spending Thursday night going over my notes from a three-hour mock oral that I had done with George a while back but I spent most of the evening filling out my 8710, assembling all the required documents, preparing the flight plan, and printing out and annotating all of the area approach plates.

I had been assigned to plan a flight from Westfield up to Houlton, ME. The forecast called for generally low ceilings, particularly up north, and with icing in the forecast from the surface up to well beyond Yellowbird's service ceiling, the planned flight was purely an academic exercise. With that in mind, I went a step farther and prepared an additional alternate plan using a less direct routing (the first flight plan stuck to the TEC routing between Bradley and Bangor) that took advantage of airways with lower MEAs.

Bedtime found me too tired to study, but not at all sleepy. I tried to read the AIM, but I couldn't concentrate. I tried going to bed, but I couldn't sleep. Finally, I popped an old tape (Strategic Air Command) in the VCR and watched those great silver birds of SAC cruising the skies until 1:00 am. I went to bed confident that, if Jimmy Stewart could fly a B-47 on a PAR approach down to 100 feet with one arm out of action, then I could probably navigate the Dear Little Yellowbird around the familiar skies of western Massachusetts with a few dozen knots of wind.

Friday morning brought ceilings of about 5,000 feet, and seven knots of wind. George had a PPL student (we'll call him Newbie) going for a checkride before me, so I had some time to prepare some more. As Newbie took off, I plugged in Yellowbird's preheater, and headed over to the office. George and I spent about an hour going over my paperwork and quizzing the basics of the orals to come. During this, poor Newbie was having troubles upstairs.

The winds had strengthened and were now blowing out of the west at up to 24 knots. This put a good crosswind component on all of the local runways, and with the added pressures of a checkride, a DE on board, and an FAA examiner reviewing the DE from the back seat, this proved to be Newbie's undoing. I don't know the details of how he failed, but it was a very dejected Newbie who landed back at Westfield an hour or so later.

While the DE had a few words with George, I chatted with Newbie and got his PIREP of the conditions aloft. As I had feared, things were pretty rough up there. I wasn't concerned about the wind, but I was a little anxious of the thought of trying to hold PTS altitudes and headings while getting battered around by the low level turbulence. With the expectation that conditions were to worsen as the time passed, I considered the possibility of postponing the checkride for another day. A handy excuse, if needed, would be that the ceilings were now down to just under 3,000 feet, meaning that some approaches could not be flown at the published altitudes while keeping VFR cloud clearances. I kept that in mind as I went in for the oral.

The oral portion was a little less involved than what I had prepared for. I rattled off a few regs on currency and required inspections and equipment. I showed him the log entries for the most recent transponder and static system checks, and then we looked at my flight plan. We chair-flew the first few segments of the route, and the DE quizzed me about a few aspects of chart symbology along the way. I also talked through my printed DUATS weather briefing, in which I had highlighted the most important factors, the most crucial for this flight being the threat of ice. Although forecast conditions didn't require an alternate, they were close, and I had filed one anyway. I explained my reasoning for doing so, and concluded that if this were for real, the icing factor would have kept me on the ground. That seemed good to the DE, and after briefing the approaches we would be flying for the checkride, he took a bathroom break while I headed over to preflight the Yellowbird.

By now, the ceilings had lifted to 4,000 feet, although there were a few clouds still hanging around at 2,700. The surface winds had dropped to 7 knots, but from the looks of the clouds scooting by overhead, the winds aloft were still strong. As the DE joined me on the ramp, we discussed the additional items such as pitot heat and alternate static checks that the prudent IFR pilot should include in the preflight checklist. After engine start, he had me demonstrate a dual VOR check, and after giving me a 'clearance' for our departure, we were off.

Yellowbird was full of fuel, and with two on board she was less than 100 pounds under gross weight, but with the freshening crosswind breeze, she lurched about uneasily as we climbed out of ground effect. The ride grew bumpier as we ascended, and the wind across the ridge just east of the field meant that a firm hand on the yoke was required to hold altitude at 2,500 feet. as I was vectored northeast for the ILS 23 at Westover. Given the turbulence and the better than normal performance in the cold air, I reduced power by a few inches below my normal cruise setting. This smoothed the ride a little, but it also gave me a little more time to prepare for the approach. I set up the frequencies and identified the navaids for the approach as I continued towards the base leg. I was also prepared to check the Westover ATIS, but the Bradley controller had given us the current information after our initial contact.

ILS 23 - PDF FormatAs I was vectored towards the intercept, I referred to my pre-landing checklist, and then verbalized the headings and altitudes for the approach, pointing to each pertinent instrument in turn to confirm the correct settings. As soon as the localizer came alive, I began the turn to intercept, letting the crosswind carry me towards the needle. As it centered, I tried to figure out what the wind was doing, but the constant variances in direction and speed made it quite a chore. As I intercepted the glide slope, that chore took on a second dimension as the strong headwind component called for a shallower descent rate. The winds shifted direction and speed all the way down the final approach segment, and I was stitching both the localizer and the glide slope pretty thoroughly (although still within half scale) as we bumped along towards decision height. With a hundred feet to go, I started drifting off the localizer, but I was at decision height before it got too far off.

VOR-A - PDF FormatBefore starting the approach we had requested our next approach, which would be the VOR-A into Northampton. After going missed at Westover, I turned to intercept a course direct to the Westfield VOR as Bradley cleared us for the approach. We were headed almost directly into the wind, so for the only time during the flight, I could fly for a few minutes without concerning myself too much with wind correction. I took the time to set up for the approach, including setting the Northampton CTAF frequency in standby. Upon reaching the VOR, I turned to intercept the radial, and as I descended towards the final approach fix, the DE quizzed me on the requirements for a circling approach and requested that I make an appropriate pattern entry instead of going missed. He also pulled out the instrument covers and failed my vacuum system. I split my scan between the altimeter and VOR on one side of the panel and the turn coordinator and clock on the other. For this approach, we had a quartering tailwind, but it was a little steadier on the west side of the ridge so I didn't have to watch the needle as closely. The wind did increase our ground speed, so when the time to the MAP elapsed and I took the hood off, I found that we were directly over the field. I announced my intentions on CTAF, entered a left upwind for runway 32, and descended to pattern altitude. At the base turn, the DE had me leave the pattern and we headed north for some airwork.

This consisted of two unusual attitude recoveries, one with full panel and the other with partial panel. Both were considerably more conservative than those that George had thrown at me during training. Both were handled satisfactorily, and the DE gave me a heading back towards home and our last approach.

VOR 20 - PDF FormatI called Bradley and requested the VOR 20, with a hold at the final appraoch fix. They asked if we could climb to 3,500 to keep the approach course clear, and since the ceiling had lifted, I complied. We were already on the radial, and I picked up the ATIS and then noted the wind correction angle as we tracked inbound towards the holding fix. At the fix I turned to an appropriate outbound heading and started the timer as the wings leveled. A minute later I turned inbound and intercepted the radial back to the fix. Inbound, the instrument covers came out again and the DE quizzed me about the timed turn required to reach our desired outbound heading. I did the math and came up with a fifty second turn. I started the clock at the fix and rolled into a standard rate turn, while also noting that the headwind on our inbound leg had delayed our arrival at the fix by nearly one minute. I announced that I would shorten our outbound leg accordingly as I rolled into the turn.

Yellowbird still has her original turn coordinator, and it's always been a bit flaky, particularly in rough air. The gyro seems healthy (It takes several minutes to spin down after shutdown), but it bounces around quite a bit in turbulence. Today it let me down. Try as I might, I could not keep it stable at the standard rate mark. Without the attitude indicator, the best I could do was to try and split the difference between the turn coordinator's fluctuations, but it wasn't good enough. With several seconds still to go on the timer, the DE uncovered my directional gyro and I saw that I had passed through the desired outbound heading by nearly 30 degrees. I turned to correct, and announced that I must have been banked too steeply during the turn. This seemed to satisfy the DE, and I continued the outbound leg as he instructed me to prepare to continue the approach.

At this time, Bradley asked if we were ready to come home, and cleared us for the approach as I turned inbound. We were still at 3,500 feet, well above the crossing altitude for the final approach fix, but the wind slowed our ground speed and gave us plenty of time to descend to the minimum descent altitude. The winds were now out of the southwest gusting to about 25 knots, putting a good crosswind component on both 20 and 33. For the sake of exercise, I requested to circle for 33, and leveled off at the circling minimum descent altitude. In due time, we crossed the missed approach point at the VOR midfield and I took the hood off. A mile later I turned to enter a truncated left downwind for 33, and descended for a somewhat bumpy, but apparently satisfactory landing.

The IFR Photo OpThe DE complimented me on my airmanship as we taxied back to the terminal, and I started breathing again. Inside, we debriefed a little. Drifting off the localizer during the last few feet of the first approach was the day's only glitch, but it was apparently within the PTS. He took my plastic pilot's certificate and gave me a fresh Temporary Airman Certificate displaying the magic words "Instrument Airplane", and we headed out to the ramp for a photo. I chatted with George for a while before taxiing Yellowbird back to her tiedown. I tucked her in, with tarps on the wings against the snow forecast for the coming week, and then went home and tucked myself in for a much needed nap.

The bottom line: In all, it took about 70 flight hours to get my instrument rating. Thirteen of those were flown in actual instrument conditions, and the rest were flown under the hood. About 130 instrument approaches were flown into 20 different airports. Flight work started in earnest in June of 2005, after taking the written exam in May. Most of the lessons were flown with George, but I did go up with another instructor (a friend of George's) twice, and flew four times with various pilot friends acting as safety pilot.