Monday December 13th 2004, N7383X, 1.6H Commercial Checkride

Well today I passed my commercial checkride. Amazing, I can now be paid for this hobby. I doubt I’m going to get rich anytime soon. But it is sure nice to have it behind me.

The day started off about 7am, checking the weather. It has been really foggy in the San Francisco Bay Area and the California Central Valley for the last week. It has been zero/zero some mornings. The forecast was for more of the same today, but not that bad. My checkride was to be out of Mather Airport in Sacramento, about a 40 minute flight from Reid Hillview in San Jose where I’m based. I had agreed with the Examiner on Friday, that as long as it was likely to be above minimums for the ILS approach (200’ ceiling, 1/2 mile visibility) when I arrived and forecast to be VFR by midday we would be good to go. As it turned out the ceiling was at 1700’ with 2 miles visibility and forecast to be 4000’ scattered later in the morning. I got to Tradewinds at 8am, got a briefing, filed my IFR flight plan and called the Examiner to let him know I was on my way. I never even got into the clouds on the way up, the uncanny ability of ATC to vector me around what few clouds existed still amazes me. By the time I got to Mather the clouds layer was so broken up that it was a clear shot into the airport on the ILS with visibility around 3 miles.

The oral part of the exam began with a briefing from the examiner – usual stuff with a special emphasis on positive exchange of controls in the event of a traffic conflict (sounds like he had a bad experience with this at some point). We went over the paperwork – application form, logbook endorsements and written test result. I had scored a 98% on the written and the Examiner commented that “this must mean I already knew all this stuff” – seemed like a good start. Once he was happy the paperwork was fine and I paid him $350 we got into the questions. For the benefit of any aspiring commercial pilots studying for the checkride this is what he asked as best I can remember.

  • What paperwork needs to be on board the airplane ? …Airworthiness Certificate, Registration, Flight Manual and Weight & Balance.
  • What does an Airworthiness Certificate mean ? …That when the plane was originally certificated it meet all the specifications and requirements of the FAA to be airworthy.
  • Do Airworthiness Certificates expire ? …No, as long as the aircraft is maintained according to the regulations.
  • When is a 100 hour inspection required ? …When the airplane is “for hire”, as in carrying people or things for money, or for flight instruction.
  • If a planes annual inspection was completed today (Dec 13th) when is the next annual required ? …Before the end of December next year.
  • If the annual inspection has expired by one day what does this mean for the Airworthiness Certificate? …Nothing, but the plane is not airworthy to fly until the annual is completed.
  • If the annual inspection has expired what should be done with the Airworthiness Certificate ? …I didn’t know – but he told me it should be removed from the airplane.
  • Why should it be removed ? …So that a pilot will see it is missing and go back to find out why, and so hopefully discovering that the annual has expired and preventing him from flying an un-airworthy aircraft because he didn’t check the maintenance logs before he left.
  • What are you allowed to do as a Commercial Pilot ? …Part 119.1 has a list of activities allowed (at least that are excluded from the part), I was going to list them out but he stopped me.
  • If I was a photographer for the Sacramento Bee newspaper and I came to you and said “I’ll pay you $500 to fly me down to the scene of a forest fire to take pictures and then fly me back”, would you be able to do this legally ? …I said that aerial photography was one of the areas that was permitted, but I wasn’t sure I could also provide the plane. He said that what was important was the purpose of the flight, so in this case I could provide the airplane and charge for it. What you cannot do is engage in carriage of people or things for money which obviously means taking people or things from one place to another (not back to the place you started from).
  • If the same photographer asked you to drop the pictures down to Modesto could you charge ? …No, this would carriage and I don’t hold a commercial operators certificate.
  • If somebody asked you to fly them on a sight seeing trip around Folsom Lake in your airplane could you charge them ? …Yes, sightseeing within 25nm of the departure airport and returning to the same airport is allowed, but has to meet the drug testing requirements in part 135.
  • Then we pulled out he San Francisco Sectional chart and he pointed to a small uncontrolled airport. If you were doing real low pattern work at 600’ what airspace would you be in ? …Class G
  • What are the VFR minimums for this airspace ? …1 mile, clear of clouds.
  • If you are at 800’ what airspace and minimums would apply ? …Class E (it has a magenta fuzzy circle around it), 3 miles, 500 below, 1000 above, 2000 horizontal).
  • Then he pointed to the airspace around Beale Air Force Base, what class of airspace is this ? …Class C.
  • If you were flying from one side to the other at 4500’ what should you do? …Nothing, its top is 4100’.
  • What is the lower limit? …2600’ and 1600’
  • If you had to fly lower at 4000’ then what? …Establish two way radio communication with ATC.
  • What does that mean? …ATC uses you call sign when they reply.
    What happens if they say “Aircraft calling, standby”? …Stay clear of the class C airspace, you haven’t established two way radio contact yet,
  • Do you need a mode C transponder to fly over Beale? …Yes.
  • Then he pointed to the words “7500 MSL” printed in blue in an area surrounded by a staggered blue line. What does this mean? …The base of class E airspace is 7500 in this area.
  • Then he pointed to the words “CHINA MOA” printed in magenta within an area bordered with a feathered magenta line. What does this mean? …Military Operations Area.
  • What should you do in this area? …Be alert for military traffic, call ATC to find out if its being used.
  • How would you know who controls the area? …It is listed on the boarder of the chart.
  • Do you need a clearance to enter? …No.
  • Then he pointed to another small uncontrolled airport with a star printed on top of the airport symbol. What does this mean? …There is an airport beacon.
  • Does this mean it has runway lights? …No, but you can find out if it has from the airport legend by looking for the letter L.
  • What do the tick marks around the symbol mean? …There is fuel available.
  • Then he pointed to the solid magenta 30nm circle centered on San Francisco Airport. What does this mean? …Mode C veil – you have to have an operating mode C transponder within this area.
  • What is the ceiling of the class bravo airspace? …10,000’.
  • Could you fly over it without a transponder? …No.
  • Is there any case when you can fly within the mode C veil without a transponder? …Yes, with prior permission of ATC to ferry the aircraft to a place where the transponder can be fixed.
  • If a guy has a private airport just inside the mode C veil and wanted to fly his Piper Cub at 25’ above the ground over his own property would he still need a transponder? …Yes.
  • What do you need to enter class B airspace? …A clearance from ATC.
  • What would this sound like? …“Cessna 7383X, cleared into class bravo”.
  • Then he told a long story about a guy flying a Bonanza from Sacramento to Palo Alto. The guy called ATC when he was over Concord Airport (just outside class bravo). ATC was really busy and said, “Bonanza 12345, fly heading 240, maintain 7000’” (which leads into class bravo), then continued issuing instructions to other aircraft without breaking. The guy kept going and got busted for entering class bravo without a clearance. At his license suspension hearing he successfully argued that the regulation stating you must always follow ATC instructions in controlled airspace trumped the regulation about needing a clearance. However, we agreed, he should have contacted ATC long before and at least tried to confirm “am I cleared into bravo”. Another moral of the story is if this happens to you – always ask for the ATC tapes straight away.
  • What is the service ceiling of you aircraft? …I said I thought it was 18,000’ as I pulled out the POH. Turns out its 18,000’ with a working EGT gauge otherwise its 14,300’.
  • Is that MSL, AGL or what? …It should be density altitude.
  • What is service ceiling? …The altitude at which you can sustain a 100fpm climb. He then went into quite a long rant about the single engine ceiling of twin engine aircraft. Basically to the effect that multi-engine pilots frequently don’t understand that when this is lower than the density altitude of the terrain over which they are flying this effectively means they are flying a single engine aircraft. That is, lose an engine and you are landing whether you want to or not. I could see this is a sore point with him and many multi-engine checkride candidates.
  • If the temperature at South Lake Tahoe Airport is 90F, assuming a pressure altitude of 6,000’, no wind and a clean dry runway, what is the ground roll and 50’ obstacle clearance distance for your airplane? …Answered this to his satisfaction using the performance chart in the POH.
  • How much does the distances reduce if you have a 15 knot headwind? …Answer straight out of the POH.
  • Then he asked my what was the fuel capacity of my plane? …80 gallons, 75 usable.
  • What does usable fuel mean? …The fuel available in any normal flight attitude.
  • He talked briefly about running a tank down beyond its usable fuel limits and how, when you pitch up on a go around at your destination the fuel would slosh to the back of the tank and the engine would quit.
  • What positions are available on the fuel selector switch? …Both, Left, Right and Off.
  • Are any specific positions required for any phases of flight? …I said I thought Both was required for takeoff and landing, but I couldn’t remember a placard to this effect. While talking I pulled open the POH section on limitations and found the fuel placard which does indeed say that Both is required for takeoff and landing, which I showed him. He said he hadn’t been sure what was in my plane, but he had been planning on checking when we went out to the plane.
  • Given his weight of 162lbs, calculate the weight and CG for the flight we were about to make. …I did the calculation, including the weight reduction for fuel I burned on the way to Mather. He asked me to show him the result on the POH Weight & Balance envelope.
  • Noting that our CG would be quite far forward he asked, what would be the effect of forward CG on cruise speed for any given power setting? …I thought about this for a while, looked at the cruise performance tables in the POH, but they didn’t mention CG. I finally guessed it would increase cruise speed – wrong answer. He explained that with a forward CG we would need to add nose up trim, which is essentially asking the horizontal stabilizer to product more “down” force – which is exactly the same as if we had added weight to the tail of the aircraft. Added weight means higher load factor, higher angle of attack so more drag and slower cruise speed. He said that this is a big deal for the airlines and they always try to load to an aft CG (still within limits).
  • Given what you just learned what is the effect of CG on stall speed? …Forward CG increases load factor and so stall speed also increases.
  • Is you aircraft airworthy? …Yes – He didn’t check any of the aircraft logs.
    When was the annual completed? …October.

Prior to flying we had some discussion on exactly how the take-off climb out should be executed with regards to flaps. Basically, Vy on this plane is 88 KIAS (which is fast for a Skylane – my 1980 fixed gear Skylane has a Vy of only 78 KIAS). If you take-off with 20 degrees of flaps it takes a long time to accelerate to Vy and you need to pitch the nose down almost horizontal. This feels quite clumsy in the plane, but the PTS requires that you accelerate to Vy before retracting any flaps. One of my CFI’s had specifically checked this point with the Examiner before the checkride (mainly because, I was objecting to the technique), the Examiner had been pretty emphatic about getting to Vy before the flaps are touched. Thankfully, a careful reading of the POH over the weekend had shown that for a normal take-off you “should retract flaps slowly after reaching 75 KIAS”. It is reasonable to treat a short or soft field take off the same as a normal take-off once you are into the climb phase (having cleared the obstacle or accelerated out of ground effect). I asked the Examiner what speed I should use (75 or 88 KIAS) and he agreed that we should follow the POH. Moral of the story – always carefully read the POH. We also discussed how gear should be retracted on the short field take-off. Again having read the POH – I said only after the obstacle was cleared – which is the right answer. Then the Examiner stumped me by asking why was this the case. After some thought I guessed that as the gear retracts on a Skylane (which is a high wing plane that tucks its gear into the main body a bit like how a bird tucks it legs in), it causes some drag. Basically the wheels turn sideways as they swing into their up position. You don’t want any drag when you are trying to get over the pine tree at the end of the runway so don’t touch the gear until you are clear.

After a quick break it was off to the flying portion. The weather had cleared even more with just a few clouds at about 2,000’. The plan was to take-off to the southeast, climb to 4,500’ run through the commercial maneuvers and then head to Franklin (F72) for the landings. I did a good job of following all the checklists and remembering to do a break check as soon as I started moving. The first take-off he asked for was a soft field. He said to imagine I was taking off with 6” of snow on the ground. We had some discussion about doing this in a retractable gear airplane, basically leave the gear down for a while so the wind can blow off any snow you may have accumulated. I demonstrated a picture perfect soft field take-off, got into ground effect early, pitched to keep the plane there and smoothly let her fly out of ground effect, bring the gear up, then flaps in increments, climb out right at Vy. We turned to a heading of 150 and climbed up to 4,500’. I remembered my climb and then cruise checklists and leveled off right on altitude.

We started with steep turns. He said I could do them one at a time or not (PTS says one should lead straight into the other). I slowed up to about 100 KIAS mentioning that that was the correct maneuvering speed for our weight on the flight, did some clearing turns and completed the maneuvering checklist – we had some discussion about the fact we were now on top of a broken cloud layer so an it was a good thing we were surrounded by hundreds of square miles of flat farm land in the case of an emergency landing. The steep turns were almost perfect (they are usually my nemesis in a checkride – I can only do them right when I’m on my own in the plane). Then we did slow flight, it was a bit unusual. First slow to 90 KIAS, maintain 4,500’, maintain heading. Then 10 degrees of flaps and slow to 80 KIAS. Then turn to a heading (90 degree turn) while slowing to 70, descend 200‘ maintain 70 KIAS. Then 20 degrees of flaps and slow to 65 KIAS, climb back to 4,500’ and turn another 90 degrees. This all went really well – its just like an attitude flying exercise in IFR training and I managed to spend enough time looking at the instruments to fly it pretty well. Then the Examiner asked me to demonstrate a stall and normal recovery from he current configuration (20 degrees of flaps, level 65 KIAS, gear up). This went well. Then a full power-off stall, 40 degrees of flaps, gear down with a full recovery, again this went well. Then an approach to landing stall, I don’t recall the exact configuration I was in, but I think it was clean (no flaps or gear). Basically it was a stall in a descending left turn. It worked ok, but not great (I haven’t practiced turning stalls enough), I over banked a little. Then a power-on stall in a climbing right turn. Basically, clean configuration, full climb power. I screwed it up – let the plane bank way too much and got pretty uncoordinated in the process. He had me repeat it to the right, this one went much better, though it is pretty hard to get a clean stall break on a power-on stall in this aircraft with the gear up. Next up was Chandelles. I did some clearing turns trying to find some good visual references for the maneuver. Basically there wasn’t much to use, we were over a broken layer of cloud in the middle of the Central Valley – so any convenient mountains were a 100 miles away. I ended up using some small cumulous clouds that were poking up from the flat layer as a reference. I did one Chandelle to the left and one to the right. They were acceptable, but I got dinged for not being really smooth on the roll-out, I actually rolled out a bit off heading. I said this was due to the lack of a good visual reference which was pretty true. Then we setup for lazy eights. The first one didn’t go great, same problem being a little impatient with the rollout and so not ending up right on the exit heading with the wings level. He had me repeat the maneuver and the second one was better – basically I just slowed down a bit which always helps in a lazy eight. There really wasn’t much wind so the examiner decided that we would skip the eights on pylons and as the cloud was pretty solid over Franklin we headed to Rancho Murieta (RIU) which is closer to the mountains and over which the layer was still scattered. Thank goodness for GPS, I’d have never found the airport otherwise.

I got the CTAF and airport elevation from the sectional chart. There was a helicopter and a Warrior in the pattern using runway 22. So after dropping down through a hole in the cloud , was passed over mid field at about 300’ above pattern altitude (which was a little low, we passed right over the Warrior on downwind). I didn’t make a great entry to the pattern (fatigue was setting in), basically, made a left turn and came in on left base instead of a right turn to come in on the left 45. Still, the Warrior was on final when I joined base so no harm done. I suffered a moment of panic as I came out of the turn (I was still expecting to be somewhat close to a 45 entry) so I lost sight of the airport – I asked the Examiner to point it out – which he did (CRM right). The first landing was to be a Short Field landing. I came in steep and made a left side slip to lose some altitude. This worked well, but considering the wind was light but 90 degrees across the runway from the right I should of made the slip to the right. We touched down just about within the 100’ spec (he said use the start of the tarmac as he aiming point – which is actually somewhat ambiguous as to the required touch down point from which the 100’ should be measured). However, having neglected the crosswind, we landed somewhat hard was a side force to the left – rather a big no-no for a commercial checkride. I was admonished on the taxi back to runway about crosswind correction. However, obviously not enough as you will see on the next landing. Before that however, the examiner asked for a short field take-off. The field elevation is 140’, he set the altimeter to 100’ and told me the obstacle was 100’ tall so he wanted to see Vx held until we were passed 200’ indicated. The take-off went well, I held in position right at the start of the runway, full power with the breaks held, release, rotate at 50 KIAS, hold 65 KIAS to 200’, then pitch for 90 KIAS, gear up and flaps up slowly after 75 KIAS. This time around he asked me to repeat the short field landing because the last one was poor. Everything went well and at about 20’ above touch down he said “go around”. The go around was pretty good, everything came up at the right time in the right sequence. With the go around we were pretty close to the Warrior, so we extended upwind to get some space. This next landing was again to be a short field landing, but then he pulled the power abeam the numbers to make it an emergency landing. He didn’t specify any particular touch down point so I didn’t volunteer one (so just a plain vanilla emergency landing – not a precision 180 power-off landing). I managed to say the right words about quickly checking the obvious (carb heat and mixture) but as we were next to an airport we would just land. On base I mentioned about securing the aircraft (fuel off, doors open etc.). I also mentioned that I’d turn early into the field as I had a long runway and it fine to use all of it to land. Again I used a left slip to get down – forgot about the cross wind in all the excitement and landed with some side force to the left. The Examiner didn’t say much but wasn’t happy – he told me later he was strongly considering failing me at this point – not sure why he didn’t. Last we did a normal take-off and headed back to Mather (which is very close by), we stayed under the clouds at about 1,200’ and made a left base entry for 22L. At this point the Examiner asked for a no-flap landing with extra added crosswind correction. This actually went OK. But it was really hard in the flare with the nose way up in the air (because of no flaps) and the right wing down. I couldn’t see any of the runway to keep the nose straight. Right at the last moment I felt that sudden sink that tells you that you are about one foot above the ground instead of 1 inch and you are about to hit hard. I gave the engine a burst of power which just about softened the landing to acceptable – with no side force – which frankly was luck because I couldn’t see the runway to keep the plane lined up with it.

And that was it. 22L is over 11,000’ long and all the taxi ways except the last one are currently closed so its a very long drive back to parking. Other than further advice to practice crosswind landings especially with a wind from the right and the paperwork was filled out. My shiny plastic Private Pilots License was taken away and replaced with a temporary paper Commercial Pilots License. I’m just glad its over.

By the time I got a briefing and got out of the FBO (and called my CFI to give Her the good news) the sky was pretty much overcast. So I asked for a Tower IFR clearance to VFR on top and promised I’d cancel when I got there. A nice climb up through about 1,500’ of cloud got me into the sunshine. I cancelled, climbed to 6,500’ and headed for home. Even though the METAR for RHV had promised FEW at 4,500’ the Bay Area looked socked in, so I dropped down near Livermore to about 3,000’, the visibility was really bad . Some more IFR, in this case I Follow Roads, I found 680 and tracked it over the Sunol Grade and down through Fremont until I had RHV in sight. A nice non-eventful landing and for the second year in a row I complete my years flying in the USA with a successful checkride. Next week I’m off to Ireland to spend Christmas with my family. Back in the New Year I’ll start to work on that CFI for next year’s Christmas checkride.

SpaceShipOne Launch, Mojave Airport California, June 21st 2004

When I saw the press release from Scaled Composites inviting the public to the first private manned space launch I just knew I had to be there. The FAQ on their web page said private planes wouldn’t be allowed to land, but the Mojave Airport web page said aircraft with prior permission could in fact land. I called them up two weeks ahead of time and got permission to arrive on Sunday afternoon, it was painless. I had PPR (Prior Permission Required) number 12. In the event I think about 50 PPR numbers were issued.

My own plane was in the shop for her annual inspection and between one thing and another couldn’t be finished in time for the trip. This was a great excuse to get checked out on the brand new 2003 Skylane (N119AZ) for rent at Tradewinds. After more than 150hrs flying Skylanes, the checkout went smoothly. It mainly focused on the fantastic avionics package in the plane, Auto-Pilot, IFR GPS, Multifunction Display and great Radios. The leather seats and new plane smell were a bonus. On the other hand, the Lycoming fuel injected engine is a pain in the butt. 5 less horsepower than my Continental and a finicky to start. The short 3-bladed prop had pretty crappy climb performance compared to my 1980 Skylane with its big noisy 2-bladed prop. Cruise performance was about the same, but the new plane burned about 2 gallons more per hour. They call this progress ?

A friend from work and fellow pilot/space nut came with me. We filed IFR and took off right on-time at 3pm on Sunday. The flight down was beautiful, I had my whole flight plan programmed into the GPS and from 1000′ I flew using the Auto-Pilot. What a difference! how can I live without these things. The plane basically flew herself all the way until the descent into Mojave. This has made me really hungry to get a new avionics package into my own plane – right now my Auto-Pilot is broken and my 1980 vintage radio’s are on their last legs. The wind was 270 at 30 knots, which is about standard for a Mojave afternoon. The landing was pretty good on runway 26 right on-time at 5pm. The tower had me follow a truck to a parking spot right in front of the terminal building. There was nobody around to sign in with so we didn’t have any special ID to show we had a plane on the ramp. I was worried that maybe security wouldn’t let us get back to the plane the following day, but in the event this was no issue.

Thanks to the foresight of my friend’s son, we had a hotel room booked for the night. We had dinner at Jerry’s which we were informed was the best (only?) restaurant in town. Food was good, service was friendly and they were all a bit bemused by the whole space launch thing. There wasn’t many people around, we got the impression that the town had been expecting a busy weekend, but in the event only the hotels saw much extra business – we were told they were booked solid. After dinner we headed back to the airport to wander around. There are plenty of cool planes to see at Mojave. My friend’s son had arrived from San Diego earlier in the day and actually called into the Scaled Composits building. They showed him White Knight but he couldn’t see SpaceShipOne because she was fueled up and stored separately for safety. He also got an invitation to the after-launch party – this turned out to be very cool indeed.

We got up at 2:30am and were out of the hotel and across the road in the 24Hr gas station buying coffee by 3am. There was already a huge back-up of cars to get into the airport. It took us 30 minutes to drive the couple of miles to the airport, pay our $10 entrance fee and get parked. We setup in the public viewing area and watched some planes come in just before the Temporary Flight Restriction took effect at 6am. I had my handheld aviation radio and we listed to the tower traffic. Later on the radio turned out to be a great idea because we were able to listen to the ground control / SpaceShipOne communications real time (on 123.375Mhz).

A tired Skylane gets a pat on the nose and a sugar lump after the flight down from San Jose.
Crowds start to gather before dawn.
White Knight with SpaceShipOne slung underneath starts her taxi from outside the Scaled Hanger.

After taking one picture I realized that my camera batteries were flat and my spare batteries were back in my flight bag in the plane. So I decided to walk back and get them. This turned out to be a great idea. Only one Cop stopped me on my walk back. I whisked out my Pilots License and told him I was going to my plane. He took a quick look at the license and then asked me in a stern voice “You’re not planning to take off, are you ?”, I assured him I wasn’t and he let me pass. Life and liberty protected once again by our boys in blue. Once I got to the ramp, I could see White Knight just down the ramp outside the Scaled hanger so I decided to hang around as this seemed to be where all the action was and nobody seemed to care I had just walked in from the outside. I watched the Extra300 chase plane taxi past me and followed a little later by White Knight and then the Starship chase plane. Funny a Starship chasing a mere Spaceship.

White Knight & SpaceShipOne taxi past.
And off into History
Followed by a Starship.

I headed up towards the control tower and the VIP viewing area. The Extra300 and Starship both took off as I walked. I was waiting for someone to say – “Hey you, where is your ID badge ? What are you doing here ?”. But they never did. Some people were wearing badges of one type or another, but nobody seemed to be checking them. I had just reached the VIP area when White Knight took off. A beautiful sight. She made a climbing right turn and started the long assent to 50,000′. After a little while the Starship joined her and they spiraled up together. It got pretty hard to see them after a while. I decided to head back to my friends in the public viewing area to watch the landing.

I arrived back about 10 minutes before they launched SpaceShipOne. My friend had found out the radio frequency the control center was using to communicate with SpaceShipOne. They were just running through the final checklists. Boy the excitement started to build. Nobody knew exactly where in the sky they were located. We heard 3 minutes to launch – I shouted it out the the people around us who couldn’t hear the radio. We heard them order the ship to drop. Then it 10 seconds to launch, as if on queue we all spotted a set of three contrails in the east, right next to a blinding bright sun. One the radio, “Three Two One Fire!” I shouted it out as I heard it. Then another contrail appeared – the rocket was there – everybody cheered and it shot upwards. It seemed to twist a bit to the right and then straighten out. For about a minute it climbed and climbed to almost directly overhead and then disappeared. SpaceShipOne was on its way to space.

We listened to the radio. I missed whatever was said during the rocket launch, everyone was shouting and cheering. Then a heart stopping moment. We heard:

“Ground to SpaceShipOne”, silence in return.
“Ground to SpaceShipOne”, still silence.
“Ground to White Knight, contact SpaceShipOne”.
“White Knight to SpaceShipOne”, silence, then “SpaceShipOne to Ground” – he was OK, but I aged a few years!

We listened in as he started to descend. It was hard to work out exactly where he was from the radio. But I heard “Passing through 200” and then later “45”. I think we caught sight of him around about 15,000 feet. We could hear on the radio that one or more of the chase planes had him in sight, but they were using the pilots names instead of the plane names so I couldn’t tell which planes had him in sight. The SpaceShipOne pilot was complaining about some pitching and lateral movements and the ground controllers where helping him fix the problem. There were also talking about a trim problem, which we later found out had caused a big problem when the rocket first fired and was the reason the it seemed to twist to the right at the start of its flight. I heard them talking about some loud bangs the pilot had heard. They were worried about damage to the landing gear. The Extra300 chase plane was told to move in close and inspect the gear and try and determine if anything else was wrong. We heard him report that the cowling under the rocket exhaust was buckled, but everything else looked good. We watched SpaceShipOne spiral down over the airport, then make a right turn for a right downwind entry for runway 30. All three chase planes were around him. He seemed to be last in line to land, but at the last second he dropped down and made a lovely landing. The chase planes flew overhead. Everyone was cheering and clapping – what a moment!

A long Climb to 50,000′
Landing! And a unique image of all modes of airplane propulsion. Piston-Prop, Turbo-Prop, Jet and Rocket.

The three chase planes made a beautiful formation flight down the runway and then broke left to come in and land on runway 26. Then White Knight did the same making a really steep almost 90 degree bank as she turned. We started back towards the ramp to go to the Scaled Hanger. Nobody bothered us on the way until just before we got to the hanger when we were asked for our invitation. It was great, White Knight was already back and parked inside. Burt Rutan was running about. I’m sure there was a bunch of famous people there that I didn’t recognize. There was also cold soft drinks and food which was really welcome. We watched as they towed SpaceShipOne back inside and Mike Melville the pilot arrived. I was standing next to him as he hugged one of the guys in a yellow Scaled shirt. I heard him say “I though I wasn’t going to make it when I heard those bangs”. He looked relieved and happy – who could blame him. I saw then bring up an old gentleman wearing a NASA baseball cap and introduce him. I bet it was one of the original astronauts, but I didn’t know who he was. I saw Burt walk over to SpaceShipOne and stick his head inside the rocket exhaust for a look – I wish I had caught than one on camera. Pretty soon all the main players headed into a conference room for a debrief and I guess to give the press conference. It was kind of annoying, we were right there but we still didn’t know if they had made the 100km altitude an actually got into space. One guy said he heard 330,000′, later another guy said 328,500 which turned out to be right.

Back home again after a long and momentous journey.
A record of White Knight’s test flights.
Some guys with signs who got a little tiresome after a while. We get the message!

We talked to a bunch of people, one turned out to be a State Senator, nice guy, but he sounded like a Republican. But he was also a Pilot so he couldn’t be all bad. We hung out until about 10:30am on the rumor that they would tells us some details about how the flight had gone. Finally it appeared that that wasn’t going to happen so we decided to call it a day. Before we left, I took the opportunity to get my picture taken beside SpaceShipOne. It was roped off, and a guy came over and gave out to me afterwards, but I still had my picture.

A Spare Rocket
Mixing it up with the very rich and famous.
I started patting one plane on the nose and ended patting another. Cool!

I was pretty tired and hungry so we had lunch at the Voyager Restaurant in the Airport Terminal. It was busy, but not too bad all things considered. The food was good. The flight back was pretty easy. The wind had died away to nothing so we took off from runway 8 and made a downwind departure. This gave me some extra time to climb to altitude before crossing the mountains West of the airport. I got in touch with Joshua Approach on the climb-out over the airport. Mojave is located in a Military Operations Area which can be active on weekdays so I wanted to be sure I had flight following. I didn’t bother with IFR, I was tired and the extra effort wasn’t worth it. I hand flew the plane over the mountains, then pretty much put a direct-to RHV flight plan into the GPS and then let the auto-pilot take us home. Have I mentioned I love these things. Two hours later we were back San Jose – a hell of a lot better than driving!

So, what a day it was. There was a real sense of history being made. Even if the world doesn’t realize it yet, I believe in the years to come this day will be looked upon like Lindbergh’s trans Atlantic flight or Beriot’s cross channel flight. What the 125 folks at Scaled have done is exceptional. They embody the very best of what America is all about. After the pretty crappy last few years since 2001 – and especially the last few months with the problems in Iraq, this event shows what makes America a great place to live and what is special about the people here.

Saturday April 17th 2004, N2805E, 1.3H

My second tail dragger lesson started with a quick pre-brief with Bob on the maneuvers we were going to practice. Basically more coordination practice and stalls. This time I got to do the pre-flight on my own no issues found. Bob arrived, asked me about oil and fuel and then we went through the “brakes, throttle, contact” routine as he hand prop’d the plane. Unlike last time, I got to try and make the right turn out of the tie down spot – no luck, even with full right rudder she wouldn’t turn and we were headed for the fuel truck when Bob took over and made the turn – it is a difficult dance between holding full rudder, tapping the right brake and applying power to get around the corner. Once around however, I took care of the taxi all the way to the run-up area. One of the mags was a little rough on run-up but high power for about 20 seconds cleared it (there is no mixture control to lean the engine to help clear the plugs). We were cleared for take-off on 31L and this time I got to work all the controls. Stick about 2/3 forward, full power, keep her straight, 40 MPH, stick a little forward to bring up the tail – now really keep her straight, then we’re up. It was not pretty, I think I know what I’m doing wrong. When I make a correction, I hold that correction to bring the plane back to the center line (which is what I try to do in my Skylane). However, this is the wrong thing to do. Instead the aim is to just keep the tail behind the nose because once it starts to swing around it takes increasing force to correct. So being a bit off center line is fine, don’t worry about it (I’m sure that as I improve, I won’t get off center line in the first place) – just stop the sideways movement.

Anyway, we depart downwind towards IBM at 2500”, there is a broken ceiling today a little above 3000” so we’ll be staying low. The climb up is fairly smooth – I getting the hang of using a gentle touch with this plane. I practice some Dutch rolls on the way – not too bad, but I get out of sync quicker than I would like. We do some rudder turns as well. These are just using the rudder to dip the wings, I’m not quite sure what they teach you other than rudder on its own is a piss-poor way to turn an airplane. Once we get over the open country-side south of San Jose we start the airwork with a couple of clearing turns, there is not much traffic today because of the low ceiling. First off its a couple of steep turns just to get back into the feel of the plane. Then straight into stalls with power on and off. I make a reasonable job of these, still little too aggressive on dropping the nose for recovery. Then Bob takes control to show me what he calls “rudder stalls”, he warns me that these can get a little violent (that is an ominous term when applied to a plane). So, first he does a power off stall, on the stall break instead of recovering he holds the plane in the stall and then tries to keep the wings level using just the rudder. Now I have done this exact same maneuver in a Skyhawk during my Private Pilot training. I remember at the time telling my CFI that I was a bit scared when I stalled the plane that one wing would drop and I’d start to spin (this happened the very first time I tried a power-on stall and it scared the hell out me, I only had 5.8Hrs at the time). So the CFI says, “Don’t worry if that happens just use the rudder to level the wings, its easy”. He then proceeds to show me by stalling the plane and getting me to hold the wings level with a fixed heading using just the rudder while he held the plane in the stall. It was easy and we held the plane like that for maybe a minute or so. It was a great demo and it did a lot to reduce my fear of power-on stalls. So now I’m wondering why Bob is telling me “it could get a bit violent” doing the same thing in a Champ. It didn’t take long to find out. It was a bit like balancing on the edge of a blade. One wing would start to drop, quick rudder correction, the other wing would start down a little faster, after 3 or 4 oscillations, bam! time to recover! which was pretty easy, just let the nose drop out of the stall. Then it was my turn, I think the most I managed was 2 oscillations before I lost it and automatic (that is mild panic) recovery kicks in. I don’t like flying planes when they are nasty and unstable like this, but it doesn’t scare me nearly as much anymore.

Next up Bob completely screws me up by covering the slip indicator (the ball). Now there is not many instruments in this plane, but I like this one the most and I glance at it a lot. But like all flight training, your favorite instrument is always the one the CFI takes away first! Now its back to steep turns, and I do a fairly poor job of staying coordinated. Basically, I always relied on the ball to tell me which rudder peddle to press. Now, I’m getting pushed out the side of the plane because of a slip or is it a skid? I’m not sure, so which peddle do I press ? Truth be told I’m still not that sure – I need to get this straight in my head the next time out. After a few turns I’m doing a little better, but its more by random experimentation with the peddles rather than an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing. Then its back to more stalls (with no ball!). This time I just try to keep the plane’s nose straight as I get into the stall and hope this keeps me coordinated enough that I don’t drop a wing too much on the break. Nothing too dramatic happens so it must have worked. Then Bob tells me to take my feet off the peddles, stall the plane and when a wing drops try and level it with the ailerons. In other words do everything wrong that you can when you stall a plane. So, feet off the rudder and pitch up. The plane starts yawing & turning to the right, then the stall break and the right wing drops. Quick left aileron to try to level the dropping wing. The result, the bottom drops out from under the right wing and we fall to the right in maybe an 80 degree wing down attitude. Whoa! I’m so surprised Bob has to remind me, “recover with rudder“. Quick left rudder, levels the wings, stick forward and recover from the stall, no problems, much excitement. Thankfully, Bob tells me that that is the most excitement we will have today. The moral of this story is don’t ever ever try to recover wings level in a stall using the aileron – it will just make an already bad day a whole lot worse. For those of you wondering why, what happens is this. When you stall while the airplane is uncoordinated one wing will stall before the other (it drops because it loses lift before the other wing – so the plane is unbalanced around its longitudinal axis ). Now, when you try and correct with aileron, you actually lower the aileron on the dropped wing (aileron down on a wing usually has the effect of increasing the wings lift and causing it to rise). However, the wing is stalled, so when the aileron lowers it changes the cord of the wing which increases the angle of attack (which is the angle between the wing cord and the relative wind).

Angle of Attack increases when the aileron drops

Now in a well behaved wing, the stall starts at the root first, the wing tips may not be stalled and are providing a little lift. Until you drop the aileron (which is out on near the wing tip) and increase the angle of attack in the last bit of wing that was working. The wing now totally stalls, stops being a wing and becomes dead weight heading towards the earth.

The last set of maneuvers was slips. First forward slips which are easy. Until you try to get smart and smoothly try to transition from left wing down to right wing down. Left to right, right to left, back and forth. This takes some fancy footwork and I confess I just couldn’t get it to work right. This I need to practice. Then we tried side slips, but not your simple drop a wing and keep the nose straight. Bob had me enter a slip and then vary the bank angle more and less while keeping the nose absolutely fixed straight ahead. First banked right then left and back again. Boy this was hard, I had the nose wandering all over the shop, but I can see how fine control of this skill will make cross-wind landing much easier.

At last it was time to head back to RHV. As I attempted to fly straight and level, Bob asked me why we were flying in a slip with the right wing down, dammit the ball is still covered and I can’t feel he slip in the seat of my pants. I try to get the wings as level as I can and the nose pointing in the same direction we are flying. This should be easy but it isn’t. About 3 miles out I’m back in a slip again, simply by virtue of getting the plane lined up with 31L and the nose pointing down the runway (rather than having a crab angle into the wind as one normally would with a slight crosswind). Bob decides I’m practicing my side slips from a long way out and I don’t tell him any different. We have a plane behind us so we keep the power up as we glide down. I hit 60 MPH over the numbers and then flare a little high again. I hold the flare, then as we sink bring the stick all the way back and bam, we set down all three wheels on the center line. I’m on the rudder peddles and we don’t swerve too much. I think Bob might have helped with the braking a little as we rollout. I think we got of at taxiway D which is a pretty long landing. We had asked for the option, so we taxi back to the hold short line and Bob asks the tower for a high speed taxi. This is basically to practice the takeoff roll. It doesn’t go well, we swerve all over the shop – I made the same mistakes I made on the takeoff. At the time I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, its only later after some thought that I think I know the mistake I’m making. We were going to practice a few more high speed taxi’s, but there are four planes down in the run-up area and things are getting busy. So we terminate with the tower and I taxi back all the way to the fuel truck outside Amelia’s. Part of a tail-wheel checkout at Amelia’s is to learn how to refuel the plane from the truck. Not too hard, but a new skill. Bob did it the first time, this time I did it.

So my second lesson is over. Again, it was great and again I learned a bunch of stuff about basic flying that just wasn’t that real to me before. Sure, I knew about not using ailerons in a stall, but today I really learned why. Sure, I knew about slips, but I never really had any fine control over them. I still don’t, but I’ve got a feeling that after some more practice I will. And lastly, my first unassisted tail wheel landing. Not too bad and actually easier than the takeoff. I’m looking forward to some pattern work to hone this skill.

….Time Passing….More Time Passing….Boom…2 Years Later…..

Well I finally finished my tail wheel endorsement on 4/1/2006, almost two years since I first started it. I flew 4 more times with Bob in the Champ with the last two flights doing pattern work and practicing landings. I got almost 9 hrs in total.Then life intervened, I headed off on a business trip. I never got around to scheduling a next flight with Bob and he never called me back (big sin for a CFI that wants to keep their business going). Frankly, he didn’t really click with me and the training experience wasn’t great. Either way, work got busier and I even stopped working on my commercial rating. I finally got back into the training grove and did my commercial checkride in December of 2004. Then in September 2005 my Private Pilot CFI, Grainne Gilvarry started working as a CFI in Amelia Reid and I re-started the tail wheel endorsement with her in the Citabria. It still took forever, 10 flights & 11hrs spread over 8 months to finally get the endorsement finished. Basically, both our schedules and the weather conspired to make it difficult to schedule flights.

I will say I’m a much better pilot today compared to when I first started flying tail draggers two years ago. Mainly just due to experience with almost twice as many hours. Tail draggers are a lot of fun, they are not all that hard to fly (or land for that matter), you just need to give them your full attention. Flying them WILL absolutely make you a better stick and rudder pilot, you will without doubt fly that Skyhawk or Skylane better. Also after landing the Citabria in a 10-knot crosswind I’m a lot more confident about crosswind landings – a skill that almost cause me to fail my commercial checkride.

Sunday April 11th 2004, N2805E, 1.4H

So here I am, private pilot ASEL, instrument rated and working towards my commercial ticket. My plans for this year include getting my CFI ticket. I guess, I’m about 6~8 weeks away from the commercial checkride but I need to get the written done and the 10 solo night landings all the other requirements are done. So, I’m thinking lets start looking at the CFI requirements. It turns out there aren’t any additional ones once you have the commercial ticket and instrument rating – except a spin endorsement. So I have to go get some spin training sometime between now and some distant date later this year when I do the CFI checkride. Well, if I’m going to go spin a plane, it might as well be a fun plane like a tail dragger. Then the idea really starts to bite, well if I’m going to spin a tail dragger I might as well learn how to fly one at the same time. And if I learn how to fly a tail dragger then my landings and coordination flying a normal plane will almost certainly improve (I might even land on the runway center line on a more consistent basis) . So if I’m going to learn to fly and land a tail dragger and that is going to make me a better stick & rudder pilot then why wait, why not do it before the commercial checkride and get the benefit for two checkrides! So that is why I’m mixing in a tail wheel checkout with my commercial training, (Oh yes, and the tax refund that will shortly arrive and pay for it). Lastly, I feel that I’m a much better pilot on the ground than in the air. Both checkrides I’ve done (private & instrument) went the same way, great oral test with only a passable flight. To some extent I hope that the focus on the real basic flying skills in a tail dragger will change this.

Now if you want to fly tail draggers in San Jose then the only place to go worth talking about is Amelia Reid Aviation in Reid Hillview Airport (Yes, its the same Reid – Amelia’s father founded the airport). This FBO is a whole different experience from Tradewinds or any of the other flight schools on the field. Their whole fleet are tail draggers – A Champ, a Talyorcraft and a bunch of Citabria’s. The atmosphere is busy and informal. The front office is usually crowded on weekends with pilots, students and CFI’s. The walls are covered with years worth of awards and memento’s, old pictures of planes and pilots. Their motto is “Real Pilots Fly Tail Draggers”, I’m not sure I totally agree, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think there was some truth to the statement.

I had called up on Friday and arranged a flight at 2pm today, Bob Goodwyn was the CFI that happened to answer the call – so first off I’ll fly with him. He told me to arrive early and I did. Bob is a tall blond guy who appears to drink coffee more or less on a continuous basis – his right hand seems to be permanently holding a cup. I thought I drank a lot of coffee – buy I now realize I am a mere bit player in the coffee drinking arena. We spent the first hour just going over the theory of what a plane’s rudder is for and why tail draggers are different. A lot of the stuff I have read about before and from an engineering perspective I understand why the center of gravity being behind the wheels makes the plane dynamically unstable on the ground . For non-engineers this means that taxiing a tail dragger is like pushing a supermarket trolley backwards (or driving a fork-lift which I have never done). Basically, the tail would much prefer to be in front rather than behind you – meaning that given a chance it will try to swing around in a bit of tail dragger revenge know as a ground loop. Apparently tail draggers were invented to punish pilots who think that they are done flying once the plane’s wheels are on the ground. Bob, explained a bunch of maneuvers we would practice – all basically to learn how to fly in a coordinated manner, then it was off to pre-flight the plane.

Today we would fly N2805E, the Aeronica Champ – a 1946, tandem two seat plane with a stunning 65HP engine. The student sits in front with the CFI in the back (opposite to the Piper Cub arrangement). The pre-flight is fairly basic – there is not much to check on the plane. Fuel (should be full – there is only 3-hours worth in the tank so the club doesn’t let you leave without a full tank). Oil – 3~4 quarts. Lift the engine cowl to check the oil and generally look at the rather small engine. Remove the cover and check the beautiful wooden prop – tail draggers don’t like brakes – they punish their over-enthusiastic use by nosing over and hitting the prop on the pavement – therefore make sure the previous pilot didn’t damage the prop. Check the controls – breaks (they are not very good) and rudder. Make sure the stick moves everything the way it should. There is no electrical system in the plane – except a radio which has its own battery – you need to do a radio check by calling Ground Control in case the battery is flat. Check the wheels and wings (looking for damage to the wing tips – resulting from a ground loop). Lastly check the tail. Be careful where you push and prod the plane – its made of fabric not metal! Now its time to start the engine. No electrical starter here – its a hand prop job. Its is a complete blast from the past, like being in an old movie. “Breaks”, “Throttle”, “Contact” and Bob swings the prop and the engine starts. Very cool, but I’m happy to be the one sitting in the plane while he does the dangerous bit out front. The cockpit is rather different from what I’m used to. No yoke, instead a real stick, fly with your right hand, left is used for the throttle. No mixture or prop control. No instruments except some engine gauges (oil pressure and temp), an altimeter, an airspeed indicator (rather strangely reading a little over 200 MPH as we sit on the ground) and a slip indicator (the “ball”). There is a compass over on the right which I doubt would be a whole lot of use for navigating anywhere. The radio is on the floor between the rudder peddles, its a bitch to reach down to change frequency. Instead of toe brakes, there are heel brakes, quite a bit harder to work in conjunction with the rudder. That’s it – no distractions in this cockpit.

Bob releases the tie-downs and chocks and climbs in the back – he takes care of the difficult right turn out of the tie-down spot. Then its my big moment – first time to actually drive a tail dragger on the ground. After everything I’ve heard I’m convinced that a second’s inattention will cause a ground loop – that I’m riding a completely wild animal ready to turn on me in a second. We start to taxi very very slowly – Bob gently reminds me that this taxi way is uphill – perhaps a little more power might get us to the runway before our two hours slot is over. So I cautiously increase the power – nothing bad happens. A little more power, almost up to normal taxi speed – nothing bad continues to happen. Hey! wait a minute! this isn’t bad. This plane is not trying to kill me (or merely badly damage my bank account). It goes in a straight line, it responds to gentle nudges of the rudder, It doesn’t feel in the least bit unstable. Is it all a lie? – a carefully organized conspiracy to make tail draggers appear more difficult than they really are ? Don’t they know I have a web site – that I’ll tell the world their dirty little secret – a tail dragger won’t actually kill you and spit out your head for the presumption of trying to taxi it in a straight line. Well, as you can see my confidence was increasing. Next comes the 90 degree turn onto taxiway Zulu. But wait! the plane happily makes the turn, the tail stays behind me like its supposed to. Confidence continues to increase – I do S-turns as we go down the taxiway just to show who’s boss. Its funny, but the last time I drove a plane down taxiway Zulu fish-tailing it like this was my second ever flying lesson and that was because I didn’t have clue how to work the peddles.

Bob takes care of the turn into the run-up area and we do our engine checks. There is not much to check other than carb heat and mags. Then the turn-out to the runway threshold. Bob, talked quite a bit in the pre-flight briefing about how tail draggers like to weather vane – so they don’t like turning their tail into the wind (which is exactly what you are trying to do after a run-up facing into the wind turning to face downwind to get to the runway). A little quick work on the breaks and rudder and Bob makes the turn look easy. We are cleared for take-off on 31L and Bob tells me he will work all the controls except the rudder peddles – that’s my job. The take-off is a quick swerve one way, stamp on the rudder and swerve the other way – then we’re up. Bob comments that its not that bad for a beginner – we stayed on the runway, if not on the center line. Bob, gives me all of the controls as we climb out – the turbulence is really bad the plane is yawing from side to side, the wings rolling one way then the other like a drunken seagull. As we climb on the downwind I ask Bob if it is really this bouncy or is it just me. He sardonically answers, “It’s mostly you”. By 3000’ the “turbulence” is finally easing, I have discovered that leaving the controls alone is a good way to get the plane to behave. You need only a very light touch – its not a Skylane. I start to notice the view, wow! I’m surrounded by windows the visibility is fantastic. This is nothing like anything I’ve ever flown before. The seat is high up, its easy to see over the nose, there is no instrument panel in the way. I’m surrounded by sky and it is way cool. This feels like really flying.

We level off about 3,500’ and over Lake Anderson start our maneuvers. First off – feet off the rudders and bank the plane one way then the other. Now, in a Skylane or a Skyhawk as long as you make some attempt at pushing a rudder when you turn the plane pretty much does what its supposed to (that is turn). Even, feet off, you don’t notice much adverse yaw. No so in the Champ! right bank – boom, the nose yaws 30 degrees to the left and she really doesn’t want to start turning. This is an eye opener, I’ve read about adverse yaw, its in the books, but this is the first time I’ve really see it. Then its Dutch rolls – this is a bit like trying to pat your head with one hand and rub your belly with the other at the same time. The idea is to bank one way then the other all the while keeping the nose fixed on some point on the horizon with the rudder. Basically, you work the rudder and aileron in sync but a little out of phase with each other. After five or six rolls you get out of sync and it all goes to hell (the nose starts to swing left and right). I actually do a pretty good job of this for a first timer. Bob tells me that we will pretty much be doing Dutch rolls whenever were aren’t doing anything else. Then we do some steep turns left and right, first at 45 degrees then at 60. This is not too bad – and boy you really feel the 2G’s in the 60 degree turn. We try some forward slips left and right, again not too bad, but the nose really wants to pitch up when you get into the slip. Then a maneuver called fish-tailing, basically yaw the plane left and right with the rudder, but keep the wings level with the ailerons. Another exercise that teaches coordination between rudder and aileron that is kind of the inverse of the Dutch rolls. Then its slipping and skidding turns. This is cool. Again, I’ve read about “flying by the seat of your pants”, the ability to actually feels the sideways force in a slipping or skidding turn (like the force you feel going around a corner in a car). But, I’ve never really noticed it in a plane – until now. First start a turn and leave keep the rudder pressure in – basically use the rudder to force the nose of the plane inside the turn – this is a skid. You really feel the push towards the inside of the turn. Then ease off the pressure on the inside rudder and apply a little outside rudder (not too much or she stops turning) you need a little extra inside aileron to keep turning. Now you feel the slip pushing you sideways to the outside of the turn. Very cool finally I start to understand how to feel the slip or skid with the “seat of my pants”. Lastly we finish off with some stalls, power-off straight ahead and turning. There is no stall horn and the stall break is a little more inclined to have a wing drop compared to the Cessna’s I’ve flown. But stay on the rudder and the recovery is pretty easy, though I probably let the nose drop too far on the recovery (but that is fun too).

We headed back to Reid Hillview, cleared to land on 31L. Bob had me pull the power all the way back and glide in at 60 MPH. I consistently over estimated how far I could glide. In my Skylane, if I’m above glide slope (two white lights on the VASI) within 3 miles of the threshold, then I’ll have to work fairly aggressively to get down and slow up to land. Get far above the glide slope and it ensure a less than pretty landing. All my practice (especially for the instrument and commercial) has been to get on glide slope and ride it all the way down to the surface. I generally keep power until over the threshold, the Skylane will drop its nose and sink like a stone if you pull all the power off, this can make slowing your vertical descent rate over the numbers somewhat interesting. The Champ drops pretty steeply without power as well, so I finally find the point where she will glide to the numbers. I flare a little high and balloon up, Bob adds a burst of power and we settle onto the runway with the stick all the way back landing on three wheels. I feel Bob hit the rudder a couple of times keeping us straight and slowing us up. It was my first “assisted” trail dragger landing. Again, we stayed on the runway, walked away from the plane and get to use it another day. Not too bad. The taxi back to Amelia Reid is a non-event.

So my first tail dragger experience is done. It was a blast, so much fun its hard to believe its legal. I totally, without any reservation urge you to go fly a tail dragger. Even that single lesson has taught me a whole lot about how planes really fly. Concepts like adverse yaw, slips and skids that I had learned but never really understood in real terms were made real today. The Champ seems to amplify the effects (or more likely they have been designed out of more modern training aircraft). I can’t wait to try out some the maneuvers I’ve learnt today in my own plane – I wish I been shown them as part of my Private Pilot training. I know the effects won’t be as pronounced, but now that I know what to look for I’m sure I’ll see them. This tail dragger endorsement is going to be a lot of fun.

Tuesday December 16th 2003, N182AK, 1.5H IFR Checkride

I took my IFR Checkride with a DE based in Mather Field (KMHR) in Sacramento. The following is the “debrief” I fed back to my CFII after it was all over. I was my CFII’s second student to take the checkride so I’d got a description ahead of time from the first student on what to expect.

No problems on the flight up, had a great tailwind and made 150 knots ground speed. Visibility was 10sm. I got lazy, and approach was busy so I didn’t bother with asking for vectors for the ILS into MHR. When I called the tower, I was given right traffic for Rwy-22 and told to report abeam the tower, then given a clearance to land on 22L. Tragen is very easy to find – get off on taxiway D, then left on A and you can’t miss it. I parked in the wrong place – hint park beside the Cessna 150 not the Falcon Jet – the line guy moved my plane over with the other spam cans while I was doing the oral.

The DE was waiting for me outside, when I got there. We went into a little conference room in the very plush Tragen FBO. He started with the paper work, checked the forms and my PPL and Medical. Never looked at my Aircraft Logs or Log Book. Same reason he gave before, “You’re PIC so its not my problem if the aircraft is not airworthy”. Paid $300, he said that the price is going up in January to $325 (decided after a meeting of the local DE’s recently), still cheaper that the $350 I paid for my Private checkride.

Here is a list of the questions I can remember from the oral and the answers he accepted.

  • What is the static port for ? ..provides static air pressure to the VSI, Altimeter & ASI
  • How does the VSI work? …Calibrated leak (I explained what that was and how it worked).
  • What instruments are vacuum driven ? …AI, DG
  • Is it allowable to have all the gyro instruments driven off the same source ? …I said I had never read the FAR that said that, but that I thought it would be a good idea to NOT run them all off the same source. He said the FAR is in the part dealing with maintenance (part 23 ?).
  • What VOR checks are required? …Every 30 days
  • List all the ways you can check them …VOT+/-4, Designated point+/-4, In the Air center of an airway over a landmark +/-6 & dual check – no more than 4.
  • Then I got the VOT question – when you measure an error during a VOT check then should you apply the error to normal navigation? …No, the system is setup to work with the allowable errors.
  • What are the requirements for filing an alternate? …1,2,3 rule
  • What about if the alternate has no approaches? …VFR from MEA down
  • The airport has no forecast weather, how do you know what its going to be? …Area Fcst, nearby airports, other weather reports (internet), call someone on the field.
  • Then the Joe Lineman question? If you called an FBO at a destination to check the weather and somebody told you it was CAVU could you use that as a valid weather report ? what about if he said it was overcast at 1,500” ? …Yes, I’d accept Joe Lineman’s assessment that it was CAVU, but not his weather report of 015OVC RVR1000.
  • He drew a hold over a VOR on a piece of paper and then asked about the various entries – What entry from here ? for a parallel, teardrop and direct. He greatly favors the teardrop entry (So I treated him to two of them on the practical).
  • How would you know you were abeam the holding fix to start the outbound timing? …My first answer was I could setup the second VOR on a radial 90 degrees from the inbound radial (he said yes, but not the best way). Then I said, time from wings level which he didn’t like and we proceeded to analyze how a 40 knot tail or head wind would completely screw that method up. Finally, I said that the ambiguity flag should flip as you pass the point directly abeam the VOR – this was the answer he was looking for.
    Are the various holding entries regulatory? …No
  • What is regulatory about holds? …I said reporting entering the hold and staying inside the protected area. I said there were speed limits depending on altitude, but I couldn’t remember them and would have to look them up.
    How long are the hold legs? …1 minute
  • What about if you are at 14,000′? …I said I didn’t know. Right answer is 1.5minutes.
  • Was my aircraft certified for know icing? …No, I’m not that rich.
  • What was known icing? …An actual pilot report of ice.
  • Could you fly if the freezing level was 3,500′, the cloud base 4,000′ with tops at 6,000′ and an MEA in the clouds? … Legally yes, but not very smart.
  • Could you climb up through the clouds to VFR On Top in the same case? …Legally yes, but again not smart (and I added that ice could prevent you from ever climbing out).
  • What if there were reports of “Light Rime Ice” on the route? …Legally No – now it is known icing.
  • He spent some time trying to but the fear of god into me about flying anywhere near ice and telling me about an encounter he had in a Barron. One hint – if the prop is iced up – cycle it quickly to break it free.
  • Pulled out the Low Enroute chart asked to explain the following: MEA, MOCA, DME distances as shown on the chart.
  • Are VOR radials True or Magnetic? …Magnetic.
  • What is the COP on a airway? …Halfway point
  • What is it on an airway with a marked COP? …The mark
  • What is the COP on V23 between RBL and SAC? …Its GRIDD because the airway changes direction at that point (we were there on the IFR XC).
  • Is the VOR COP regulatory? …I said I had never read the regulation that said it was, but that I thought it was good idea. The right answer was simply Yes (where is this written down?).
  • You are on V199 from RBL to ENI, in solid IMC. Your clearance limit is ENI VOR which for the sake of the question can be assumed to be an IAF for some approach into Ukiah Airport, your destination. You were cleared to climb & maintain 3,000′ and expect 9,000′ in 10 minutes. You realize that you have lost coms after takeoff. What do you do? …You are assigned a route so you fly it. You maintain 3,000′ then start a climb to get over HENLE at or above 5,000 (its MCA). Climb to 9,000′. At ENI you start the descent & approach based on your ETA.
  • What about if you are at 3,000′ just before HENLE when you realize you have lost comms? …Hold at HENLE, standard turns on inbound course while climbing to the MCA.
  • What about if you arrive at ENI 10 minutes before your ETA? …Hold at ENI until your ETA.
  • Must you fly the ILS approach into Ukiah? …No, fly whichever approach you want.

Then it was onto the flight. We didn’t file IFR – he said to pretend that he wasn’t in the plane, he would be playing ATC and would be unavailable to help with anything other than holding something like a map. He gave me my clearance while still in the conf room and told me to plan out the flight. It was” Cleared to SCK, SAC, V585, ECA direct, M045, xpond 1200″. There is a published hold on this route at WAGER intersection which I guessed correctly would be where he would ask me to hold. We took off on 22R straight out, I managed to get SAC identified on the climb out before I put the hood on. Then “ATC” informed me that they had lost radar and to report reaching 4,500′ and the SAC VOR. I made the reports, hit the VOR dead on, got established outbound on V585 without any problems. Then I was told to “climb and maintain 5,500′”.

After tracking V585 for a while he told me that “continued radar problems would require us to hold, inform me when ready to copy hold instructions”. I think I was still getting level at 5,500 so I told him to standby, got the plane trimmed out and then got the hold instructions: “Hold SE of WAGER as published, maintain 5,500′ Pretend to have an EFC”. I almost screwed this hold up in two ways. First (and I’ve made this mistake before), I set 083 for the intersecting radial instead of 093. He said, “was I completely sure I had everything setup correctly”, I started checking everything I had done a second time and was just looking at the radial when he pointed out my error and admonished me greatly for the dumb mistake. Putting this behind me (not busted yet at least), I then proceeded to work out the heading for the teardrop entry. I managed to add 30 degrees to the heading (a right turn) instead of subtract it (a left turn). I caught this one myself before getting to the hold (at which he was greatly relieved, saying it would have been a bust to turn the wrong way). I remembered to report entering the hold and then really nailed the flying part – lovely intercept of the inbound course.

He then gave me an amended clearance, “Direct to LIN VOR, V113 ECA direct”. I got LIN tuned in and ID’d and was just getting turned towards it, when he asked what was I planning to do. I explained fly direct to LIN, then outbound on 192 radial to ECA. He said this was correct and gave me a vector of 240 to go and do some airwork. He told me to get the plane setup for steep turns – so I slowed and did my standard maneuvering checklist. Then one turn to the left and another to the right. Neither were great, but they were within limits (just). Then he had me slow down to 70 KIAS holding altitude and then accelerate back to cruise. Then descend 200′ at 80 KIAS.

Actual GPS track superimposed on SAC ILS Approach Chart

We then called up NORCAL and asked for vectors for the ILS Rwy2 approach into Sac Exec. The controller was real busy, we got the vectors, but he never gave us missed instructions or cleared us for the approach. The last thing he said was intercept the localizer before, he passed us off to the tower. I asked them for missed instructions and after the expected “didn’t you get them from approach”, tower gave them to us. As the glide slope came in I realized I wasn’t cleared for the approach (sound familiar) and said this – the DE said he was clearing me (ok, not a problem, start down the glideslope). I made a poor job of the ILS – my usual tendency to overcorrect. But I didn’t really miss anything critical and never got outside PTS once we were inside the FAF (I simply flirted with the limits). By the end I got to DA with the needles centered.

We went missed and then asked for pilot nav VOR Rwy2 approach which we were given. I made a pigs ear or trying to find the radial direct to SAC (there is really no time to get setup for this approach). I think the DE was getting a little impatient with me hunting for the radial, over correcting the heading and generally doing a poor job of flying direct to the VOR. I also managed to get NORCAL’s attention, he asked me twice was I really flying direct to the VOR and what was my heading. Yes, it was that bad. I finally staggered my way to the VOR and made a good attempt at the teardrop entry for the procedure turn. Nicely intercepted the inbound and actually made a pretty passable attempt at the approach. Needle stayed centered, didn’t bust MDA, got the timing correct. Just before the MAP, the DE called the tower and asked to depart VFR to MHR. That was it – kept the hood on until we got onto the right downwind for 22R. MHR Tower was asleep, I think I forgot to call them abeam the tower to wake them up so I had to verify I had a clearance to land when I was on short final. Breaking my tradition of making a dreadful landing with a new instructor in the place, I nicely greased the landing.

I got an earful on the taxi back about overcorrecting – “just hold the heading”. Then a short trip back the conference room to get the paperwork and my new Temporary Airman’s Certificate. He said, my oral was well above average – and we didn’t talk anymore about the flight (enough said already).

The flight back was a dream, bit of a head wind, only made 130 knots ground speed. Busy getting back into RHV (#4 to land). Made another nice landing, which will be my last for this year in N182AK.

Sooo. No partial panel, no unusual attitudes, only two approaches – feels like I got off easy. Don’t care, feels good to have the rating and it just gives me plenty of reasons to keep practicing & training this stuff.

Sunday March 16th, 2003, 12pm, N5766J, 1.6H

Today was an interesting flight. It was my first “$100 Hamburger” and it was a huge learning experience about judgment and decision making in real life. Yesterday’s weather was terrible, no question of even considering flying. However, today it was marginal and all the implications of “weather or not to go” came into play. The forecast for today was for showers in the morning as a front passed over the Bay Area. It was supposed to clear by mid-day with sun shine and scattered clouds following. I had organized with two friends to take them on their first plane trip with me to go for lunch in Marina Airport (OAR) near Monterey. So there is the first big “external factor” coming into play – I didn’t want to disappoint my friends and cancel the flight. Checking the radar on ADDS about 10am there was a distinct but narrow band of heavy rain baring down on San Jose.

The Satellite pictures showed the front clearly with only light and scattered cloud behind it. The TAF’s for San Jose & Monterey were both for clearing after midday with scattered clouds at 2500′. I decided that once the rain passed it looked like the forecast would be correct and the flying would be fine, possibly just having to navigate around “some” cloud at 2500′.

As I drove to the airport about 11am the rain was coming down hard and the ATIS at RHV was reporting visibility of less than one mile, mist & rain, the ceiling was well below 1000′. I spent the next hour at Tradewinds checking the weather radar and the METARs at WVI, MRY and SNS. As expected the rain stopped and the cloud started to break-up, when my friends finally showed up about 12:30pm the sun was shining and there was only some scattered cloud at about 3000′. I could see mostly blue skies to the west, but there was some cumulous over the hills. The ATIS/ASOS down south had started to clear, with both MRY and WVI reporting few at around 2000′. The visibility was fine under the cloud. So I decided that we were good to go, in hindsight I’m not sure I ever even considered not going – I was convinced that scattered cloud and sun shine would be fine.

About 1pm we took off straight out on runway 13L. This in itself was interesting, I had more weight in the plane that ever before (just 37lbs under MTOW). The climb out over Eastridge Mall was ponderously slow and we took a long time to get up to 3000′. Once I got to 3000′ it was clear I needed to keep going up, there was a layer of scattered stratus over Morgan Hill and Gilroy and the easiest was around it was over the top, I leveled off at 4500′. As I passed South County (Q99) I could see what appeared to be a solid wall of cumulus sitting over Highway 101 just where it turns west to head into the Monterey Bay area. It was going much higher than I wanted to fly, but I could see clear air underneath it through a hole in the cloud. So while my friends happily snapped pictures of the beautiful clouds around and below us I decided to take a closer look and see if I could drop down through the hole and fly underneath it. I checked the ASOS at WVI and they were reporting scattered at 1200′ so I thought that once I got under the wall the ceiling would probably be higher. Well first of all, dropping down through a cloud hole is not as easy as people make out – my friends seemed to actually enjoy the steep turn to the right I had to make to avoid flying into a cloud on the way down. I was just lucky that that was the only maneuver I needed to make, there just happened to be clear air to my right. If there hadn’t been, I would have been in cloud trying to execute a standard rate turn on instruments to get myself out again. You think, duh! how could someone fly into a cloud, well guess what, if you start doing dumb shit stuff like I had just done, then it’s really easy. I had managed to put myself into the situation where I was reacting to circumstances in real time, with no idea if each action was increasing my options or decreasing them. In fact, in situations like this options are almost always decreasing – less altitude, less clearance to the clouds, less fuel, more stress. The shit just piles up until you can’t keep up and something bad happens. It is no fun, when you start to realize you are about 3 steps down a chain of actions that you’ve read in an NTSB report about some poor sod who flew VFR into IMC and hit a mountain. I was lucky, once I got down to about 1000′ I could see clear to the sea, I knew that worst case I could head to the coast and then follow it south to MRY without danger of hitting anything sticking up from the ground. The highway follows a valley between fairly low hills (you can see this pretty easily on the GPS map). I had to drop a little lower flying towards Moss Landing, but as I neared the coast the cloud base lifted a few hundred feet and I was comfortable at 1000’. Along the way one of my friends asked me to cut across the hills on my left to fly over a friends house, I at least had the sense to say no, that I didn’t want to cut my ground clearance anymore than it was already. Just after I turned south to head towards Marina, my friend realized that the house he wanted to see was actually just east of my flight path – so I did a nice lazy circle over it so he could take pictures. A few minutes later I found the Marina pattern empty, did a standard 45 entry to right traffic for 29 and made a feather light landing to my great relief.

My friend Kelly and I at OAR
Heading north to Santa Crux
Santa Crux

Our rather late lunch was at the Marina Airport Restaurant. It was almost empty when we arrived. The food was fine and there was plenty of it. Definitely a nice spot for my first $100 hamburger (or in my case a $100 tuna sandwich), just fly down when the weather is nicer.

The weather looked a lot better after lunch. The sky over Marina was almost clear of clouds and I could see all the way up the coast to the mountains north of Santa Cruz. A call on my cell phone to the ASOS as WVI reported “few at 1900’”.However, there was still a mass of clouds over the tops of the mountains northeast of Marina, just where I wanted to fly home. I decided to takeoff, I could always return to Marina, MRY or WVI if I got into problems. I was going to fly up the coast to Moss Landing and then see if I could cut across the mountains following 101 back to San Jose. My friend also wanted to do another circle around that house again, now that he had called its occupants so they could come out and wave. So I took off from 29 and made a right crosswind departure staying at 1000’ (to remain well under the shelf of MRY’s class C). I did another circle around the house. The route back the way I had come looked terrible from 1000’ and there was no way I was going to tread my way back up that valley flying into raising terrain with no clear idea if there was space to get over the hills. So I decided to climb above the scattered cloud base that was at about 2000’ and see what it looked like from above. This involved a big S-shaped climbing turn as I avoided some scattered clouds on the way up. The picture looked no better from 3000’ so I continued on up the coast towards Santa Crux. By this time I was staring to wonder how I was going to get back to San Jose. Stupidly I was thinking I wanted to avoid the hassle of talking to ATC involved in crossing San Jose class C. I think I was worried that on every other occasion crossing San Jose I was directed to over fly the field. However from this direction there was no simple way to do that. Instead I would have to fly directly across the approach path to runway 30 in SJC or be vectored around the place by ATC which would be a new and novel experience for me. As all this was going through my head I had turned east over Santa Crux and started towards the mountains more or less following Highway 17. I was thinking that I might see somewhere to cross that was still far enough south of San Jose to avoid their airspace. Now I have never actually flown in this area before, so as I let the terrain and clouds more or less direct my path I started to get concerned as to exactly where I was in relation to the mountain peaks higher than me (anything above 3500’) and the boundary of SJC class C. By this time I was actually close to Lexington Reservoir (I know now, I didn’t at the time). There was a big assed mountain right in front of me. Beautiful clear sky on my left with a view towards San Jose (and its airspace). I actually turned right away from the nice blue sky. After about 15 seconds of staring at a mountain top embedded in cloud I realized what a dumb idea it was to fly into that, just because I didn’t want to talk to ATC. I turned the plane around, got a fix on the San Jose VOR, got a distance to it from the DME, found the right frequency for Sierra Approach on the chart and got on the radio to ask for flight following to RHV. It was easy and the relief of hearing the controller read back my call sign knowing I could now happily enter SJC class C was worth it. As soon as I got clear of the mountain, I turned right directly towards RHV and flew past downtown San Jose (much to my passengers enjoyment) at 3500’ without even getting a traffic alert from ATC. About 3 miles west of RHV I was told to descend at my discretion and given a frequency change to contact RHV tower. They gave me an entry on left downwind for 31L or a base entry, again my choice. In the end I came in on a 45 degree entry that was very high, turned downwind which I extended a bit to lose altitude and then made a nice uneventful landing. So today I learned a lot about making decisions, good and bad. I learned a lot about how external factors and wishful thinking can conspire with marginal weather reports to get you into a bad situation quickly. In hindsight, the air mass behind the front must have been warn and unstable. As soon as it hit the mountains it bubbled up into cumulus clouds. The nice satellite picture of clear sky over the ocean behind the front was totally misleading, that treacherous air was just clouds waiting to happen as soon as they met a friendly mountain. In fact there were some pretty heavy thunder storms over the North Bay in the afternoon that I heard about as I drove home. I should have realized this when I saw the cumulus forming over the mountains when I took off and certainly when I found them blocking my path on the way to Marina. Next time, I’ll try to be a lot more tuned into what the weather is actually doing, rather than what the current METAR’s claim is happening. Next time I remember that “few at 1900’” can be like flying under what feels like a solid ceiling. Next time I won’t invite passengers if the forecast is marginal, its too much of a temptation to cut corners, and it really should be the reverse – more care and attention to conditions when you’ve got passengers. At best they can be a distraction if things go bad and the added responsibility just increases the stress level. Next time, I resolve not to dive through holes in the cloud hoping to find a welcome on the other side. Always have an exit plan, I didn’t when I dove into that hole, if the base had been just a couple of hundred feet lower I would have been in the soup, close to the ground with raising terrain to my left and right. This time I was lucky, its a lesson well learned. Next time I will fly in circles until I have a plan rather than just let the plane take me somewhere. I ended up almost making a really stupid decision over Lexington because I left the plane take me there not really sure of where I was going to go. I could have got on the radio to ATC over Santa Crux and saved myself a lot of heartache instead of waiting until I had few other options left.

So did I do anything right. Well, I didn’t panic and I got my plane and passengers back safely and actually none the wiser to how marginal the whole flight had been (unless they read this web page). I didn’t press my luck, once I saw a safe path to the coast I took it and didn’t deviate into a more dangerous situation (like flying over 400’ hills at 800’ feet with who knows what sticking up into the air). I quickly realized my mistake over Lexington and did the right things to get home. I will probably look back at this flight after many hundreds of hours flying an wonder what all the fuss was about. Probably pilots that live and fly in places with much worse climates than San Jose will read this and wonder what I’m complaining about. Still experience is earned the hard way, I don’t have much in the bank yet – but my 1.6 hours flying today was a pretty big deposit to get started on.

Sunday March 9th, 2003, 8:30am, N5766J, 2.0H

I just got back from Australia yesterday and I thought I would be way too jet lagged to do any flying this weekend. But the weather was just beautiful, crystal clear, blue, cloudless skies. So I made a last minute decision to go early in the morning when I was still awake. I only had the plane until 11am so I couldn’t go too far and I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been to before. Half Moon Bay was the perfect destination.

I love the Bay Area, at this time of year when the hills are green the sky is blue and everything just sparkles it has to be one of the most beautiful places to fly. It is such a special privilege to be take a plane on a day like today and just fly. 5766J is the Buick of the Tradewinds fleet. It is a 1980 Skyhawk and is the plane I flew for my first solo. It somehow feels roomier inside with bigger more comfortable seats but it is slow and ponderous in the air. It is the perfect plane for a lazy morning pleasure flight.

I took off downwind from 31R and headed for South County, that is the easy waypoint to keep you away from San Jose class C. I turned west and headed for the ocean, then followed the coastline north, passing over Santa Crux and on up the coast to Half Moon Bay. This is just a spectacular trip that words can’t convey, you’ve just got to go see it for yourself.

Half Moon Bay Airport has a single runway 12-30. You can’t miss it, just north of the town and harbor. It is right traffic for 30 and left for 12, so you are always on the landward side of the runway. As I descended there was just a couple of aircraft flying south along the coast calling on the CTAF, they weren’t landing, just passing through. Some helpful soul responded to my request for a traffic advisory and told me that 30 was active with an 8 knot wind straight down the runway. I made a pretty good landing into a fairly stiff wind. The runway is in fair condition and its big (5000 x 150), apparently it was built for the military back in WWII as a coastal defense station. When you exit the runway turn right, towards the Bay. There is transient parking right down at the end which is apparently just a short walk to some fine restaurants. I unfortunately didn’t know this at the time and happily taxied all the way to the other end of the airport where there is absolutely nothing of interest to any body. I had pulled over and shut down the plan to have a smoke when a nice gentleman in a fire truck drove over to me to find out if I needed assistance, seeing as I had parked in place that suggested my plane was about to explode. I explained I had simply got lost on that last 3000’ of my journey from RHV and asked him where I should have gone. He told me, thus avoiding the embarrassment of this happening again with passengers whose confidence in my navigation abilities might be shaken by the experience.

Having taken the long way around on my way here I didn’t have any time to hang around and sightsee. So it was back into the air, and a downwind departure. I climbed up to 3000’ and got a baring and distance from the Woodside VOR and then called Sierra Approach and requested flight following back to Ried Hillview. I was really rusty on my radio work (I forgot to give my altitude a couple of times among other mistakes), but I guess it was a slow Sunday morning and ATC didn’t give me a hard time. The hand held GPS gave the heading back to RHV so as soon a got talking to Approach I turned for home. As expected I got passed off to San Jose Tower who told me to over-fly mid-field at or above 2000’. Things got a little interesting once I got passed SJC. There was a plane leaving RHV on IFR, so instead of handing me off to RHV tower as soon as I got over SJC (the usual procedure), I got vectored eastwards and was told to expect to approach RHV from the north. I finally got the hand-off just as I exited class C, about 3nm north of RHV. A quick call to RHV tower and I was given a downwind entry to 31R for an uneventful landing. This was my first time in class C since way back in my training (I think my stage II checkride when I flew to MRY) and it was definitely my first time solo in class C (which I didn’t even realize at the time). All in all a great flight!

Sunday February 9th 2003, 3pm, N4754D, 0.8H

I just got back from a business trip to the Philippines yesterday. I didn’t plan to fly this weekend because I thought I’d be jet lagged. However, when I woke finally at 1pm on Sunday afternoon the weather was just perfect and I felt pretty rested. I just had to get up in the air. It was one of those days with absolutely clear blue sky, calm wind and unlimited visibility, I think there’re called severe clear. The long range forecast is predicting a return to winter weather starting mid-week and it might stay that way for the rest of the month. So I decided that if I was finally going to take my first passenger flying it had to be today. My first passenger is my partner Tai, he hasn’t exactly been nagging me to take him flying. In fact I know he is a little scared of the whole idea, so I want to break him in slowly, a short flight with perfect weather to hopefully get him hooked. He already likes the “idea” of 2.5 hours to LA, or 3.5 hrs to Las Vegas, but I‘m still not sure whether he will like the actual experience. As luck would have it, 4754D was available at 3pm so I booked it, called Tai and told him I’d pick him up on the way to the airport (I didn’t give him much choice in the matter). I bet many Pilots have the same thoughts. After months of work and thousands of dollars I hope my (up to now) supportive significant other actually likes flying enough to come with me more than once.

So my first experience of a totally virgin passenger, never been inside a plane without at least two jet engines and 100 seats. On the way out to the plane Tai decided that wearing a headset looked cool and as there was a helicopter practicing nearby it was noisy. So he followed me around, watching me do the pre-flight wearing a headset. I made him take it of once we got inside the plane so I could do my first real passenger briefing, how the seat belts work, not to touch anything, how to get out. For the first time the briefing actually mattered.

We did a downwind departure and climbed up to 5500’. I wanted to get high enough to get the view all the way from Monterey Bay to the Sierra Nevada. On the way up I asked what he thought so far and he said “a little scared looking down”. By the time we leveled off over Anderson Reservoir I was getting “its so beautiful”. I made a big lazy turn left and took us past the Lick Observatory on the top of Mount Hamilton then over Calaveras Reservoir. We started a descent over Sunol and I made a slow left turn to bring us abeam Mission Peak. As I called into RHV Tower we passed over my house. I entered right traffic for 31R and made a picture perfect landing (thank god).

So is he hooked? Not yet, but at least the ice is broken and it wasn’t too bad. He’ll come flying again and we’ll go somewhere useful.

Saturday January 17th, 2003, 8:30am, RP-C1680, 1.9H

Since starting my flight training I have made it a point to try and fly in as many different countries as possible. So far, I’ve flown in my home town in Ireland three times, in Australia last February and I just got to fly in the Philippines in January this year.

I make trips every six months to my company’s manufacturing plant which is south of Manila. This time I spent some time online and found an FBO called Omni Aviation located in the former Clark Air Force Base. I contacted them in early December by email and got a pretty fast response from a guy called “Capt. Lasmarias”. Yes, they had planes to rent, a 172F (1968) and a 172XP for $120 & $126 per hour wet. After I got back to the USA after my Christmas holiday in Ireland I confirmed the dates and made a hard booking for the 172F (the 172XP was grounded for some reason). Capt. Lasmarias emailed me pretty good driving directions and contact numbers so it really was a no hassle process.

I was staying in a pretty nice hotel in Makati City – this is the fancy high-rise part of Manila where they have us rich westerners stay (a five star hotel for $60 per night). It is generally a pain to stay there for anything but the shortest trips as it is a two hour drive to work through traffic that makes the San Francisco Bay Area look like a cake walk, but the company provides a car and a driver because they know I’d kill myself trying to drive on my own in Manila. I organized for my driver to take me up to Clark AFB on Saturday morning, he decided that we needed to start out at 5:30am to make it there for 9am. In the event we arrived outside the base at 7:30am and spent half and hour drinking coffee at a filling station since Omni doesn‘t open until 8am.

Finding Omni on the base was no problem and I was just taking a walk around the flight line when Capt. Lasmarias turned up and introduced himself, his first name is Aljess. He turned out to be a 27 y.o. CFI who is also the general manager of the FBO. His dad is a pilot with Philippines Airlines and he mentioned that there are 15 pilots in his family. He has about 500 hrs and is working his way towards an airline job as well. He flew as co-pilot with me, took care of the radio work, took the controls so I could take pictures and generally kept up a constant commentary on what we were flying over, its history and flying in general. In short he was a nice guy to fly with and he really added to the enjoyment of the flight.

Omni Aviation FBO
Omni Flight Line with Mt Pinatubo in the background
Aljess Lasmarias and RP-C1680

We did a quick briefing in the FBO. The rules, regulations and airspace in the Philippines seem to be basically the same as the USA. We discussed our route and made plans to land at Corregidor the largest island in Manila Bay, we reviewed the equivalent of the AF/D (hand written notes in a well worn notebook belonging to Aljess). Corregidor had a gravel strip with an asphalt touch down zone, is about 2000’ long and sits on top of a narrow ridge at one end of the island. There is no weather reporting, instead you check the ATIS for Manila International which sits at the far side of the bay. The rule is you don’t land at Corregidor if the ATIS is reporting over 10 knots of wind. Aljess filed a flight plan by fax (required for every flight in the Philippines) and then told me that the plane had a problem with its starter motor so we would have to take a mechanic and a spare battery along in case we couldn’t get the plane started again after landing in Corregidor, I agreed as long as the mechanic was a small guy, as Aljess and myself are each about 200 lbs and this is only a 172 that is also carrying full fuel!. The mechanic turned out to be about 110 lbs, even so I think we were pretty close to max gross weight at takeoff.

The plane RP-C1680, turned out to be a spotless 172 with almost new paint and interior. There was not a speck of dirt inside or out. This should not be surprising, when I walked around the flight line earlier there were 4 ground staff on their hands and knees cleaning and fueling her (I guess ground staff are not that expensive here). I did my usual pre-flight and everything looked good on the outside. The instrument panel looked a little tired and there was only one radio. Aljess took care of actually starting her, as promised the starter motor was on its last legs, it barely turned the engine over (Aljess assured me that they were only waiting for the replacement part to fix it). After two or three attempts the engine finally started and sounded just fine (and I decided quietly to myself that we wouldn’t be landing on Corregidor even with a mechanic and a spare battery onboard).

Aljess took care of getting a taxi clearance and I got to practice my soft field taxi technique. There are no taxi ways as such, just flattened bits of grass. While Clark has two huge runways (it was an Air Force Base after all), Omni actually has their own runway that is separate from the main runway complex. Its about 2800’ of asphalt but the takeoff point is actually on the grass about 500’ short of the numbers. This makes for an interesting transition, full soft field technique until you hit the asphalt going around 40 KIAS then transition to a normal takeoff to lift off about halfway down the runway. With all the weight onboard our climb rate was pretty anemic (or maybe I’m just spoiled after so long flying the Skylane, I’ve forgotten the good old days flying Skyhawks!). Clark AFB is in class C airspace, but there is hardly any traffic. Aljess tells me it gets busy at night with FedEx jets. The radio work seemed pretty simple, basically stay on the tower frequency for traffic advisories (there wasn’t any).

We made a left crosswind departure which took us across the main runways and then flew a racetrack circuit on the Northwest side of the field to climb up to 5,500’ before turning West to head across the mountains. The weather was pretty clear with just some small cumulous over the mountains with tops at about 5,000’. We passed Mt. Pinatubo on our left then turned southwards to fly along its northwestern flanks. The devastation from the 1991 eruption is incredible. The whole area on this side of the mountain is covered in thick ask deposits. The surface has grown a thin layer of vegetation, but you can see many deep gorges cut into the ash by rivers flowing down from the mountain. There is nothing left down there except ash – it was once full of farms and villages. We made a couple of circuits and climbed to 6,500’ to get a better look inside the crater which is now home to a lake. Then headed southwest towards the coast and Subic Bay, descending to 3,500’ along the way. I had expected the air to be fairly bumpy over the mountains, but we were above the puffy clouds and it was really quite smooth (Aljess said it usually got bumpy after midday).

Mt Pinatubo Crater
Ash deposits with deep river cut gorges on northwestern side
A new lake that formed behind the ash deposits

We flew across the mouth of Subic Bay and got a great view of the old naval base and airport. Then down the coast to Manila Bay – you could see the coral reefs lining the coast, it was really very beautiful. Corregidor Island was home to a bunch of WW2 buildings and installations. We dropped down to 1000’ to see the buildings and checkout the runway (Manila ATIS was reporting calm winds). Taking one look at the runway convinced me that my no-go decision was a good one. So I told the guys that I was secure enough in my manhood not to feel the need to test it by making a landing here. Busy airspace with lots of ATC I can do, but not landing on a short gravel strip along a knife edge ridge on an island with no guarantee that the engine will restart if I turn it off!

Subic Bay
Final Approach Runway 20

After Corregidor we flew along the northwestern side of Manila Bay. Not much to see except an oil refinery and fish farms. Once you hit the north coast you just fly heading 030 until you hit the highway, turn left, call Clark Tower and then follow the highway until you see the church in the town of Angeles. That is starts you on a right base entry to runway 20. I made a pretty reasonable landing and got off at the usual taxi way (flattened bit of grass along side the runway).

Total time was 1.9hrs and cost US$259 (including various landing fees and other bits and pieces). The flight was excellent. I would happily recommend Omni Aviation and Aljess Lasmarias to any pilot wanting to get a taste of Philippines flying. The country is beautiful and there is hardly a better way to see it than from the left seat of a small plane. I’ll be back in July and I’m already making plans to fly again, maybe up to Baguio or down to Boracay this time…

Thursday March 6th, 11am, VH-TUR, 1.4H

My last flight in Australia. Peter picked us up from the train station, but thankfully was not the CFI I would fly with today. That turned out to be another guy whose name I’ve forgotten. When we got to Chieftain he was out with another student and we ended up hanging around for almost an hour for him to get back. It was almost 12pm by the time we got the plane started. Because of the heat here the afternoons are usually a bit windy and bumpy, not the best conditions for my passenger (Tai). Today I had planned a flight to the Blue Mountains which are just a little west of Sydney. They are not really mountains as such, just a plateau at an altitude of about 3,500’ cut up with lots a canyons. So no real mountain flying conditions to worry about, the only concern was a lack of any civilization along part of the route (just dense forest & lakes – so fingers crossed that the engine keeps going, otherwise its a water landing).

There was scattered cloud at about 3,000’ over the airport, but a weather briefing from the Australian equivalent of DUATS said that the ceilings were above 4,000’ over the mountains with no forecast of getting worse. I decided that I could always make an easy turn back if it looked like here wasn’t enough clearance between clouds and ground. We took off on 11C again and made a downwind departure and headed roughly northwest towards the mountains. The area were headed for is called Katoomba, it has its own airport and I was hoping to land there – however, John Lion (Chieftain’s owner) said no-way. Its an unlicensed airport, over here than that means it is a dirt strip of questionable quality. It is perched along the top of a ridge line and is subject to some vicious crosswinds. I didn’t need much persuading to change my mind. Katoomba is a small town that sits along a cliff overlooking a beautiful deep valley. There is a locally famous landmark called The Three Sisters which is a set of three pillars of rock extending out from the cliff edge (you will see lots of tourist brochures in Sydney hotels for day trips out here). Given that its one of the few natural wonders around here, I was expecting there to be some air traffic like helicopter tours or other GA planes, but apparently the sky here is usually empty.

Its only about 35nm as the Skyhawk flies from Bankstown to the Three Sisters so we were there pretty quickly. As forecast, the ceiling had lifted as we got over the higher ground so I was able to fly about 800 AGL over Katoomba. This was lower than I would have liked, because the deep canyons were causing some light turbulence which I knew would bother Tai. We did one orbit around the Three Sisters and then headed south flying along Lake Burragorang. The next landmark was a large quarry where I turned back towards Bankstown. We passed Camden Airport taking care to stay out of its GAAP airspace, then over Menangle Park which marked the turn north towards Two RN the reporting in point for Bankstown. The approach and landing went without incident, though you still need to make it steeper than I’d like. This time I wanted to get down to about 800’ over Warrick Farm, but my co-pilot insisted I needed to stay at 1000’, That may be the procedure, but getting down from 1000’ in less than 2nm is pretty steep in my book.

Over Lake Burrangorang
Katoomba & The Three Sisters

I really enjoyed the flight today unfortunately Tai did not. The bumps along the way scared him (even if he didn’t get airsick this time). I’m afraid I’ve put him off flying, hopefully not for good. We were planning a trip down to Palm Springs in April, now he is telling me he doesn’t want to go. This will really suck. All through my training I’ve looked forward to being able to just takeoff with Tai and fly to interesting places. Flying solo is fun, but sharing the sensation and freedom with your partner is so much better.