Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Flying Lesson #15

As I arrived at the airport for my flying lesson, dark clouds filled the skies and the forecast called for thunderstorms over the next few hours. Those conditions made the go/no-go decision easy: it was going to be a ground-school day.

The instructor gave me some practice with the school's PCATD system. It's informally referred to as a "simulator," but as far as the FAA is concerned, it is a "flight training device." Such devices are not very useful for teaching the basics of flying, but are useful for practicing emergency procedures and instrument flight. The instructor put me through a few engine-out scenarios: on the runway, a few hundred feet after takeoff, a few thousand feet in the air, and so on. The simulator was hard to fly, because the controls are a lot more sensitive than a real plane's, because of the lack of physical motion, and because you can't see much out the "window." The graphics were very crude in comparison to Microsoft Flight Simulator, but it has a lot of features useful for flight training.

The PCATD seems like a pretty good deal for the flight school. They charge $49/hour for its use, as opposed to $86/hour for real-airplane rental. The real airplane burns about #36 of fuel per hour, so the per-hour rates are really about the same. The PC costs a fraction of what the real airplane does, and I don't know for sure but I suspect the maintenance and insurance costs are minimal. It's probably not a good deal for the instructors, as I don't think they get to log pilot time while using it for training.

After some time with the PCATD, we looked out the window and saw that the weather was getting better. The instructor suggested that we try to get some more pattern work done, so we headed out to the plane. Noticing one dark cloud over us, the instructor told me to leave the plane tied down, but to do all the other preflight activities. Sure enough, just as I was about to complete the preflight, it started raining, so we secured the plane, gathered our gear, and ran back inside. (Here's a pilot tip: If you fly a low-wing airplane, try to park next to a high-wing airplane so that you can duck under it whenever it rains.)

We had to wait about ten minutes for the shower to pass, watching weather radar and paging through aviation magazines to pass the time. Radar showed another band of precipitation forming off to the west, but it would be about an hour before it arrived, so we headed back out to the plane, re-did a few parts of the preflight, and took off.

I handled pitch and power well on the approaches, and leveled out and flared pretty well. However, my directional control was just screwy. The instructor would tell me to go left when I thought we needed to go right, and vice versa. I don't know what sort of brain damage I have, but it's just not working. The next lesson plan calls for crosswind landings, so I hope with a few more landings I'll figure out whatever it is that I'm not getting. I've ordered a yoke and rudder pedals for use with Microsoft Flight Simulator, and I hope some practice with that might help me re-wire my brain however is necessary.

I handled the radio most of the time today, with the instructor stepping in whenever ATC made an unusual request. The pattern was a little crowded, as several pilots wanted to practice touch and goes during the break in the weather, so there were several "extend downwind, I'll call your base" kinds of instructions and lot of traffic advisories. We had to go around once when the plane in front of us stopped on the runway instead of getting clear. I'm getting pretty comfortable with the radio, although there were a few missteps and a couple of times when I said "three-six-delta" when I meant "six-three-delta." After our full-stop landing, ATC actually gave us (me, really) a compliment about our nice tight patterns. (I guess they don't pay attention to the touchdowns.)

For today: logged 1.1 hours dual in N4363D, with 7 takeoffs and 7 landings. Cost: $344.98 (including both the PCATD session and the flight).

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