I didn’t get to fly solo on Sunday, the marine layer fog had created a solid ceiling over the airport when I arrived at 10am. It had started to burn off, but the visibility never got above 5 miles and my limit is 10, so another solo flight scrubbed. This is frustrating, it was a beautiful day except for the reduced visibility.
Today, the weather was nice, warm and sunny with just a bit of haze, the visibility was about the same as yesterday, but today I was flying with Grainne so we only needed standard VFR conditions. The plan was to do some hood work in the practice area and then come back to RHV to practice short and soft field landings and take-offs. I would be flying in 4754D again, this is the plane that gave me all the radio problems that I have now blamed on my headset. The last couple of times I borrowed a headset from Tradewinds and these worked, though the loner headsets are pretty crappie. Last week I created a jig that has a socket for my headset microphone connected to another microphone plug. The idea was that if the particular mic plug on my headset was causing the problem (it seems slightly longer compared to the plug on Grainne’s headset) then the jig would convert my funky mic plug for a more standard one. I still borrowed a headset in case it didn’t work.
Had a normal pre-flight, my own headset seemed to work with the new jig, normal taxi and run-up and a much better attempt at a soft-field takeoff compared to Saturday. The soft-field takeoff (and taxi) is all about keeping moving and protecting the nose wheel. The idea is that if you’re on a grass, snow, gravel or mud surface then your liable to sink in if you stop moving – so always keep moving once you start and your nose wheel tends to want to dig itself into the soft ground so keep as much pressure off it as possible. When you takeoff you apply a lot of back pressure, the nose wheel pretty much lifts off the ground as soon as you apply power so the initial takeoff is done on just the main wheels. As you gain a little speed the plane will lift off, its flying in ground effect so you have to keep it there (within a wingspan of the ground) to gain more speed, this actually takes a surprising amount of forward pressure. As the plane accelerates it just lifts itself out of ground effect into the air.
We made a downwind departure and once I completed the climb checklist Grainne had me put on the hood – this restricts your vision to just the planes instruments and try’s to simulate what would happen if you flew into a cloud by mistake (though I’ve read that a cloud is much more disorientating). Grainne had me fly a heading of 120 degrees as we climbed, then a heading of 090 as I leveled off at 4000′. This was fine and I had much better control of my heading compared to the last time I did hood work (better rudder control). Then we started to practice “recovery from unusual attitudes”. If you fly into a cloud and become disorientated then it is very likely that you lose control of the airplane. I read a statistic that most VFR pilots find themselves in a spiraling dive within 90 seconds of entering a cloud – this is a scary thought. The recovery from unusual attitudes is supposed to simulate this situation and ensure that you can recover control with just instruments and fly yourself out of trouble. Grainne took control of the plane and had me close my eyes, she said that she was just doing clearing turns but with your eyes closed the G-forces are your only guide to how the plane is moving (a very misleading guide). It felt like she was throwing the plane all over the place. Then she says “your plane” and you have to quickly determine what its doing and recover.
The recover was actually fairly easy. I thought it would be a bit scary but just staring at the instruments makes the situation feel almost artificial. Sure, the attitude indicator shows that your pitched down almost 45 degrees but it would feel very different if you could actually see outside of the plane, a pitch like this is way out of the ordinary and would be a bit disconcerting. We did five or six recoveries, all of them except one were nose down with varying degrees of roll and speed. The hardest was actually a quite shallow wings level dive, but was very fast, it took a long time to pull the plane back to level and I overshot the pitch on the up side. One was nose high, just getting close to a stall (the stall horn was sounding when she gave me the plane). Then it was hood off and back to RHV. We got a straight in approach to 31L that got changed to 31R when a Commander slipped in beside us on the left. The approach was fine though I felt really slow compared to the Commander, he passed me and was on the ground before I got onto final over the Mall. I attempted a soft-field landing which turned into a more standard landing when I failed to keep the plane in ground effect long enough.
We proceeded to do 5 more takeoffs and landings. The first three were soft-field technique and the last two were short-field. I got better at the soft-field stuff, it’s strange, but a poor soft-field landing qualifies as a pretty good normal landing. I can’t really point to any one thing but my landings have been getting steadily better over the last few flights. I got the hang of the soft-field takeoffs and did a good job of keeping in ground effect until the plane was ready to fly for real. The short field takeoff is fun. You lineup as close to the start of the runway as possible, stand on the brakes until the engine has developed full power, brakes off, zoom down the runway, rotate at 51 KIAS and pull the plane into the sky at 59 KIAS (Vx). Its fast and relatively easy, but you need to be confident of your pitch control. A few weeks ago I would have been scared of stalling on the climb out. The short field landings are fun as well. The idea is to come in as steeply as is possible and then stop in the shortest distance possible. You get steep by keeping above glide slope and then descending with a full 40 degrees of flaps. The pitch is high because you also want a slow speed, about 60 KIAS. The flare is more tricky – you shouldn’t spend anytime flying level, just a smooth transition from the descent to the flare. Then yoke all the way back to transfer as much weight to the main wheels and brake hard. You are also supposed to dump the flaps as quickly as possible to lose as much lift as you can – this also brings weight onto the main wheels and helps to brake. The first landing wasn’t great, the glide slope was not steep enough, however the second was much better. Today’s flight was a lot of fun, I’m really looking forward to getting out and practicing some of this stuff on my own – if the weather ever get good enough to fly solo. Next flight is my first full night flight and we’re going to San Jose International, so its also the class C airspace experience.