Quote of the Moment

"Beep Industries currently has no openings. This is a good thing. Any number of career paths are better than game development. Lots of jobs are more lucrative and far less work. We hear marketing and animal husbandry are filled with potential."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A vacation and a fresh start

It’s been an interesting month since my last post. My flying was interrupted by a week and a half vacation to California, then resumed with a focus on passing my first stage check. In the parlance of the flight school I’m attending, this stage check is a flight where one of the school’s Master CFIs rides in the right seat, and observes your behavior as though you were flying solo. It’s his determination of whether you can safely get one of the school’s expensive aircraft off the ground and return it in the same number of pieces you left with that decides if you’re ready to solo.

I figured that I was pretty well prepared for my stage check. I hadn’t done much of any studying while on vacation, preferring to simply enjoy some time to unwind from the 60+ hour work weeks I’ve been doing for the past few months, but I had scheduled a refresher flight with my instructor for the day after we the family got back from our trip. The refresher flight went up on a nearly windless Saturday morning, and was probably one of the smoothest I’ve ever had. Stalls, slow flight, and steep turns were all within PTS standards, and one or two of my landings even felt pretty good. I was confident of a good performance the upcoming Tuesday.

Tuesday arrived, and as I drove to the airport, I could feel a bit of nervous energy kicking in. I was still excited though, and the butterflies were doing a pretty good job of flying in formation. I tossed up a couple of quick prayers, and soon enough, my questioner for the day started in on the ground school questions.

And then everything fell apart.

It’s been more than seven years since I graduated college, and at least that long since I’ve taken a difficult test that meant something important. I had totally forgotten that when I feel confident beforehand with limited preparations, I’m setting myself up for a world of hurt.

My recalled ground school knowledge wasn’t up to standards. I think it was close in most areas, but not enough to pass the actual FAA test. Still, the instructor didn’t fail me right there, so we headed out to preflight the airplane.

At least that part went well. I’m fairly sure he had pulled the circuit breaker when I wasn’t looking, but either way, I managed to catch and reset it when it came up on the checklist. The transponder was also not in its proper VFR configuration, but again, those were little things that I managed to catch before firing up the engine. It wasn’t until after the prop started spinning that I started getting rattled.

In hindsight, my first mistake wasn’t as bad as I thought. The winds were in the process of shifting, a new ATIS bulletin was about to go out, and the ground controller told me to taxi to the wrong runway and only caught his mistake after I’d finished my run-up checks. Of course, I thought I’d misheard (the instructor confirmed that it was the controller’s mistake, not mine afterwards) and spend the taxi back to the other end of the runway mentally kicking myself for being stupid, and telling myself to shake it off and focus.

Unfortunately, I was starting to get rattled, and it started to show when combined with my lack of recent practice. I blew through the final takeoff items checklist a little too fast, and forgot to note the takeoff time before we went roaring down the runway. In fact, I pretty much forgot the proper use of checklists, period, until we were in the practice area and I was working on my maneuvers.

It was a bumpy afternoon. None of my maneuvers would have met the PTS standards, but they, at least, were sufficiently close that the instructor felt comfortable saying I could practice those solo. Then it was time to head back, and my fun really got started.

The winds were still shifting, and the pattern was nice and busy. Boeing Tower was obviously dealing with a lot of aircraft, and I started on a long base leg entry; an approach I’ve never quite done before. Predictably, I came in too high, and ended up going around. On the bright side, the landing on the go around was one of the smoothest I’ve managed yet (and it ate up more runway than it should have. Ed.) After that we pulled up for another touch and go, only to have the tower flip the active runways and have me do a 180 in the downwind leg. In a move that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, the instructor then decided that it was the perfect time to have me simulate an engine out landing. Had it been an actual emergency, I could have made it (I would have used the big 9000’ runway) but on the 3150’ foot little airplane runway my engine miraculously fixed itself in time for me to go around. And have my flaps do a simulated failure.

I couldn’t do a flapless landing any better than I could an engine out. Perhaps sensing that I was just about at the end of my rope, nothing else had simulated failures on the next go around, and I was able to get the aircraft on the ground again (with a decidedly jarring point that I was very definitely on the ground).

After one final confused brain fart about where to park, I sort of fell out of the airplane and had a brief discussion with the instructor. The short was that my landing approaches weren’t good enough yet, but everything else was close enough that he’d leave my actual solo approval to my regular instructor.

That was the Tuesday of a week ago. In perspective, written down, the story doesn’t sound that bad, just a challenging day with a lot of good learning experiences, but it took a lot out of me at the time. There certainly hasn’t been anything recent that has left me as mentally and emotionally drained as that couple of hours.

But I’m pressing on. My next flight is Thursday, back with my regular instructor. With some better focus on using checklists and maps, and not relying so much on the fancy G1000 instruments, I should be soloing in a couple more weeks. I’m trying to keep in mind what a pilot friend of mine, a guy who used to be an Air Force instructor, told me about training:

“Training isn’t the fun part. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to teach you to be safe when you’re ready to fly for fun.”