METAR KSET 061454Z AUTO 30014G20KT 10SM OVC027 00/M05 A3023 RMK AO2 SLP237 60001 T00001050 51030=
I start watching the weather forecast a few days before a flight, hoping for calm winds and clear skies. That was not going to be the case for this flight. It would become one of my most exciting and memorable flights so far.
I got up at 7am for early flight, checked the weather and saw that the high winds forecasted for the last few days had not changed. Suddenly I was nervous again about going up. Thankfully, the night before, I head read up on crosswind takeoffs and landings.
After arriving at the airport and before heading out to the plane I reviewed the crosswind takeoff technique with my instructor: full aileron into the wind before the takeoff roll starts and less as the ailerons become effective, using the appropriate amount of rudder as usual. Once off the ground, let the plane crab into the wind. Sounds easy enough but I had no idea how much aileron would be needed as we left the ground, I didn’t want to slam a wing into the ground. During preflighting we tuned to the WX frequency and heard the report “Winds 310 at 16, peak gusts 24” (18 mph and 27 mph). We headed out to runway 27 and, with my instructor on the controls with me, performed a nice, clean takeoff. No drama, no discomfort. I had, once again, gotten myself worked up for nothing. We climbed quickly with the 16 knot headwind and 180hp engine in the freezing winter air.
The turbulence was kicking us around a bit on the way to the practice area, the wind gusting from the west as we flew north. I did my best to not fight it and relax on the controls, let the plane take the bumps instead of constantly overcorrecting. As we climbed up to 2000 feet we started entering the edges of the clouds, surrounding us with haze that was just starting to dissipate. There were patches of clear sky opening up and shafts of bright sunlight shining through, saturating the surrounding clouds with a beautiful, glowing white light. Flying around in the edge of the clouds made it feel like I had a little patch of the world to myself.
After practicing a power-off stall we turned back towards the airport for some crosswind landings. A quick check of the WX frequency reported the wind coming from a more northerly direction so we’d be using runway 36 for the landings. Flying in strong winds a week after practicing ground reference maneuvers was a perfect way to reinforce what I had learned. The stronger winds really helped to illustrate crabbing against the wind, especially on final. The first two crosswind landings felt a little sloppy but the third and final landing of the day felt much better. I would have been happy to practice a few more landings but, sadly, the hour was up.
With each flying lesson I get more comfortable with a certain aspect of aviation. Before this flight, my biggest remaining area of concern was high winds and turbulence. With this lesson, that fear has turned into respect and anticipation. Crosswind takeoffs and landings require careful coordination and attention but they also expose some of the more interesting and exciting skills required for flying. Hopefully, in future lessons, I’ll be much more relaxed when it comes to unfamiliar situations.
It had been four weeks since my last flight, I was looking forward to going back up to work on my next lesson: Ground Reference Maneuvers. Before the flight my instructor discussed the plan. We’d do a review of previous skills and then three ground reference maneuvers: rectangular course, turns around a point and s-turns.
Ground reference maneuvers are a handful of different turns at a relatively low altitude that involve learning to fly more precisely relative to the wind. Driving a car in a circle is simple enough, you turn the wheel into the direction of the circle and keep it there, going slow enough to prevent the tires from losing traction. Now imagine you’re driving on ice with a strong wind, you have to compensate for the wind pushing you across the ice, making parts of the turn sharper than others. Flying in a circle is similar but also requires you to maintain altitude as well as keeping an eye out for other planes.
First up was “turns around a point” or, more simply, flying in a circle around a point on the ground. The goal is to fly a clean circle and keep the same track around the point for each turn. During my last flight in San Francisco I circled Candlestick Park a few times until ATC cleared us to continue our flight. When I was making those turns I wasn’t taking the wind into consideration and drifted away from the park. I did better on this most recent flight with my instructor helping me through each part of the turn.
Next up was s-turns where the goal is to fly equally sized half circles along both sides of a straight road. The first turn into the maneuver wasn’t very clean as I wasn’t immediately sure which road my instructor wanted me to follow. The subsequent turns were better and I’m sure they’ll improve in the next flights. We headed back to the airport to do rectangular course, basically just flying the pattern a few times. Towards the end of the last few turns I started to get a better feel for the wind affecting the plane. I’m looking forward to practicing more of these turns, they definitely help get a better feel for maneuvering a plane. They’re also kinda fun, you get to really “fly” the plane, exercising all the controls, instruments and looking around constantly.
I recorded this flight using the CloudAhoy app on my iPad and an external Garmin GLO Bluetooth GPS sitting on the dash of the plane. CloudAhoy records the flight path and profile including location, speed and altitude and uploads to their servers for analysis after the flight. Being able to review the specifics of takeoffs, turns and landings after the lesson is great, it showed me exactly how well I performed each maneuver.
I hope to increase the frequency of my flights, up from twice a month to at least three times a month. The longer the wait between flights the more you have to relearn the skills from the previous lessons. My goal is to get my license in as little time and cost as possible.
I travel a bit for work, mostly to the San Francisco Bay Area. On my most recent trip, I arranged a one hour lesson at the Palo Alto Airport. Since I usually fly out of the calm, un-towered St. Charles Smartt Airport I thought it’d be good to get some experience at a busier, towered airport in a much more complex airspace. The Palo Alto airport along the San Francisco bay is just such a place. With three major airports (SFO, SJC and OAK) and a handful of smaller airports all within a fourty mile radius, the bay area is a much different airspace than KSET. I made a reservation with Advantage Aviation for one hour lesson in a newer Cessna 172 with an experienced instructor. Since I was traveling with a coworker I invited him to go up with us in the backseat.
We arrived early on Friday morning at the FBO. It was a perfect day for a flight: light winds, clear skies and a cool, dry day. I met the instructor a few minutes early to discuss the flight. We’d make a few turns around downtown Mountain View for some pictures of my office and then a nice shoreline tour of the San Francisco area. The instructor grabbed the keys and we walked out to a newer Cessna 172 with a beautiful Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. Very impressive compared to the classic analog gauges I’m used to seeing. The instructor spent a few minutes explaining the basics of the G1000, we did the pre-flight checks, started everything up and taxied out to the runway.
On previous takeoffs I’ve overcorrected during the roll down the runway, steering a little too far right of the centerline before abruptly correcting. This time was no different. I need to relax and be smoother with the controls, not trying to constantly overcorrect every second. Once we built up enough speed, I pulled back to takeoff and almost immediately entered a stall. I hadn’t remembered my coworker in the backseat, shifting the center of gravity towards the back of the plane, making the nose pitch up faster. I immediately pushed the controls forward to gain some airspeed and lower the nose. At least some reactions are starting to become correct and instinctive.
Once we climbed above the bay, we turned southeast towards Mountain View to do a few circles over my office. I’ve yet to explicitly practice turns around a point but, after a few circles, I started to understand that it wasn’t just turning into and keeping an exact bank angle. After three or four circles, we climbed to 3000 feet and headed southwest over the mountains toward Half Moon Bay. The view below of the foothills, the ocean and shoreline off to the left, and the city ahead was spectacular. Once we got closer to downtown San Francisco we descended a bit before flying over the Golden Gate bridge. We circled a few times to get a few photos before the instructor put the camera on the dash and got a great shot of the three of us.
After passing between downtown San Francisco and Alcatraz we turned right, back along the shore, towards KPAO and checked in with SFO tower. So far, the radio work had been more effort than I expected. Palo Alto ground, Palo Alto tower, Moffett field, Norcal approach and SFO tower made for a lot of radio changes to frequencies I was unfamiliar with. Thankfully my instructor stepped in for some of the calls, reducing my workload and stress and giving me more time to look around. We approached SFO airspace just as two large passenger jets were lining up for takeoff from SFO’s 28L and 28R parallel runways. SFO tower instructed us to circle Candlestick Park while they cleared the jets of our path. Sadly, it was after the postseason so no chance of catching a glimpse of a game. After half a dozen circles of Candlestick, SFO tower called “Two hotel gulf, clear to continue along Highway 101. 747 departing now. Caution, wake turbulence.” I turned out towards the 101 and in the distance, slowly climbing out from behind the San Bruno Mountain, was one of the departures we had been circling for. Seeing a heavy 747 (Cathay Pacific Flight 879) crawling through the air to gain altitude was an awesome sight, the icing on the cake of an already great flight. I was flying a plane a few thousand feet from one of the largest aircraft in the sky, an international flight at the beginning of it’s fourteen hour trip to Hong Kong.
We headed back towards Palo Alto, keeping to the right of the 101 and working through various air traffic control frequencies. Shortly after we turned final for the approach to runway 31 I completely forgot how to fly a plane. I was stepping on the pedals and turning the yoke, trying to figure out how to get out of the slip I had entered. My instructor helped out a bit to help make a rough but good landing. We taxied off the runway and headed back to the FBO. A fantastic flight and a great end to a trip out to California.
The video turned out a bit better on this flight. I placed my phone in a RAM X-Grip mount on the upper left corner of the windshield above my head. Sadly it kept trying to figure out what to focus on and the battery died about 15 minutes before landing. I also recorded the comms audio with a special cable and a digital voice recorder. I created a short video of the flight with the comms audio added where appropriate. My coworker also got some great photos from the backseat including shots of the office, the Golden Gate Bridge, the mountains and SFO airport. You can view the photos on flickr and the video of the flight on youtube.
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