Saturday, February 19, 2005


Flying Lesson #3: Cross-Country and Landings

As I pulled up to the flight school, I was surprised to see a B-17 parked next to the school's planes. I walked up to take a look, and saw that a C-47 and a T-6 were parked there also. I asked the instructor about the planes, and he said that the founder of Epps Aviation was having a birthday party, and there would be a mini-airshow. There were rumors that a P-38 would be coming in as well. From now on, I'll be taking my camera with me to the airport.

The instructor's plan for today was to have a short cross-country flight up to Gainesville (GVL), do a few landings there, then fly back to PDK. He showed me the route on the chart. I've flown this route in Microsoft Flight Simulator several times, but decided not to mention that because I didn't want to be laughed at. He let me listen in as he called the flight briefer. The call could be summed up as "Great flying weather all over northern Georgia".

During my preflight check, three dual-rotor Chinook helicopters took off in formation a couple hundred yards away. Awesome.

As we taxied out, we were told to hold short of a closed runway (9-27). We sat there for several minutes, wondering what was going on. Then we were directed to taxi down one of the active runways and then back onto the taxiway we started from. Then we saw what was happening: the taxiway was blocked by a plane with a flat tire, so they had to route us around that section of taxiway.

After the runup, the instructor let me take care of taxiing onto the runway and taking off. We went north for a while, turned east, then started using the chart and looking for landmarks. We eventually found I-985, which goes right toward GVL, so I followed that. The trip to GVL was uneventful, which gave me an opportunity to practice maintaining straight-and-level flight along a road.

As we approached the airport, an uncontrolled field, we listened to what was going on and the instructor announced we were entering the pattern. There were several other planes in the area, so it seemed pretty busy to me. It seemed like there were planes everywhere.

We did three touch-and-goes, meaning that three times we landed and then immediately took off again without stopping. I handled the controls while the instructor gave a little extra help during the approaches and touchdowns. I didn't freak out, but I admit I felt pretty overwhelmed the whole time. I was continuously busy either trying to (a) maintain pattern altitude, (b) descend at a constant 500 ft/min rate, (c) make a nice 90-degree turn, or (d) stay aligned with the runway on final. I know this will get easier with time, but right now it's a lot to handle. I need to work on the following things:

In my defense, I should mention that I really haven't had any preparatory training for landing. I haven't practiced slow flight, I haven't practiced ground-reference maneuvers, and we haven't reviewed landing procedures. I don't blame my instructor for this - the real lessons for today were pilotage, cross-country flight, and communications at uncontrolled airports. The touch-and-goes were an introduction to pattern flight and landing, and I'm sure we'll cover the procedures in more detail before he really expects me to be proficient. This instructor seems to like pushing his students just beyond their comfort levels, and that's fine with me. It's good to get a preview of what I'll be learning.

I've read a few discussions among instructors arguing over whether touch-and-goes are a good idea for student pilots. Now that I've done a few, I don't think there are really any safety concerns. However, I would have felt a lot less behind-the-curve if I'd spent a few minutes on the ground after each landing, and I would have had more opportunity to ask the instructor questions between the landings.

On the way back to PDK, we came pretty close to another plane. We had it in sight a good distance away, and we didn't have to change course to avoid it, but it is amazing how close a couple of little planes can get in that big sky.

The instructor let me handle the approach and landing at PDK (with a little help from him). I rounded out way too early and finally touched down a couple thousand feet down the runway. I was the victim of a visual illusion: the runways at GVL were much narrower than the PDK runways, so when landing at PDK I thought the runway was closer than it appeared.

After clearing the runway, the instructor asked me to make the radio call to ground control. I rehearsed a couple of times: "Peachtree Ground, Cherokee 4-3-6-3-delta, clear, taxi American Air". When I was ready, I made the call. I couldn't hear myself in the headphones while I was speaking, so I wasn't sure if anyone heard me. Then Ground responded, and I suddenly remembered I was expected to read back their instruction. I screwed that up, saying just "4-3-6-3-delta taxiing" or something like that. Next time, I'll be ready.

As we walked off the ramp, I saw the B-17 and other vintage aircraft again, and wished I had thought to look at them from the air. Then the instructor noticed that the P-38 was at a nearby hanger, so we had no choice but to go look at that for a while.

So, for today: 1.4 hours dual cross-country, with 4 takeoffs and 4 landings in N4363D. Cost of instructor and airplane rental: $275.82.

We asked around to see if anyone knew when the B-17 or P-38 would be flying, but nobody knew. I hope they will still be around tomorrow when I show up for my ground-school class, so I can get some pictures.

The difference between the Canadian and US system of training astounds me. Your third lesson in Canada would concern the correct use of power, attitude and trim for climbs and descents at various rates and airspeeds.

You might do the landing with assistance from your instructor.
We are straying a bit from the official curriculum because I don't have my medical certificate yet and therefore cannot officially progress through the lessons under part 141. Rather than do the official lessons now, and then be forced to run through them again after getting the medical, the instructor is concentrating on giving me an overall feel for the plane. Is this the right way to progress? I don't know, but I don't think I'm wasting my time.
In Canada you only need the medical in order to fly solo, so you can work methodically through the lessons, waiting for the medical. If it doesn't arrive by the time you are ready to solo, you would either wait, or continue with the dual program and go back and pick up solo time later.

I'm really enjoying your blog.
You're right -- landing will get easier, eventually. First, however, it's going to get a lot harder, especially when your instructor starts seeking out crosswind landings for you.

Like Aviatrix wrote, learning to fly is different in Canada -- we follow a standard national curriculum, so a lot less depends on the whims of your instructor. Flying schools even get their cross-country training routes for the PPL preapproved by Transport Canada (i.e. every student will do exactly the same two solo cross-country flights at any given school before the PPL).

I'm going to take a slightly different angle than Aviatrix, though, and write that none of the standardized training really helped much. I guess that slow flight was useful, but really, the only thing that taught me how to land was landing, not stalls, slow flight, steep turns, forward slips, and all the other relatively-pointless upper airwork in the practice area. By the same token, playing scales never made me any good at music, either -- sightreading one piece was worth weeks of scales, and one landing was worth hours in the practice area.

After I got my license and bought my Cherokee, I initially concentrated on my night and instrument ratings, and my landings actually got worse because of the inevitable gauge fixation. Once I had my ratings and had done a lot of IMC, I decided to go back to the VFR basics and do some real grass strip/short field work: I taught myself how to bring the Cherokee in over trees almost right at the threshold, how to get the plane down and stopped in 300 or 400 feet (lightly loaded, and on runways at least 1500-2000 ft long, just to be safe), how to be in the air long before the 1000 ft point on a grass runway, etc. etc. It was *totally* different than practicing so-called short-field and soft-field takeoffs and landings during training at bigger airports, and it was only then that I really started to feel that I was making landings rather than just semi-controlled dives towards the runway.
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