Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Making a dream come true

Hey Everyone,

I've started this blog to keep you all updated on how I'm getting on with my lessons. As some of you know already, I flew out on Wednesday and arrived in San Diego with the sun still shining and temperatures of about 25C. Flight was long and I was glad to get my head down. I left Amsterdam with a headcold and managed to get some painkillers for my sore throat, which thankfully never got too bad and I didn't really need them afterall. But as they say in the boy scouts...."Be Prepared".

Thursday was a slow day. There were some screw-ups with my accomodation. Apparantly the guy who had my flat never cleaned it and when I arrived it was a pig-sty. It looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. I managed to get the school to have someone come round to clean it, albeit after some persistent persuasion. My room-mate is a Spanish guy, called Jose. I thought I was tall until I met Jose. He's 2m tall!!! Jose's here hour building for his Commercial Licence. He's a nice guy and we get on well. Sonce he's already got his licence, he told me I should feel free to ask him any questions and he'll help me out as best he can.

Since I had a head cold and also getting over the effect of the jet-lag, I decided to ground myself and not begin flying. Instead, jose rented a Piper Cherokee (for those of you who don't know what they look like, they're the small planes with a wing on the bottom of the fuselage instead of the top) and he went for a spin around San Diego. He invited me along for the ride and I sat in the back whilst Jose and a mexican pilt friend of his, Ricardo, flew around San Diego. They gave me one of the charts so I could familiarise myself with the local area, reporting points and landmarks. We flew straight out of our airport, called Gillespie, and headed West towards the side of Miramar Airbase. Miramar is a HUGE military base. It was previously a Naval Air Station but is now used by the U.S. Marine Corps. It's also famous for the fact that Top Gun was filmed at Miramar.

Anyway, when we passed Miramar with it on our right, we then turned left towards San Diego Internaional Airport. There's a VFR corridor that small aircraft can use that keeps us out of the way of the commercial traffic going into and out of the airport. We passed another Naval Air Station on our right, and had Downtown San Diego and the Int'l airport on our left. We bimbled along until we neared the Mexican border and then hung a left towards a small airfield right on the U.S./Mexican border called Brown. It's so close that the ciruits flown there for touch and go's are done with right hand turns instead of the standard left hand turn because if you did a left hand turn you'd then be over Mexican airspace. Ricardo took the controls and set us up for a touch and go at Brown. I can honestly say that it was THE WORST LANDING I have ever experienced. It seemed that he let the plane get a little away from himself and we just dropped hard onto the runway. Flaps up, full power and away we went and headed North to another airstrip here called Ramona.

At Ramona, Jose took the controls and turned to me to say that this landing would be smoother. And he was right. Although he did say that with the extra weight in the plane (i.e. yours truly) he noticed the speed was harder to keep on. After the touch and go in Ramona we bimbled back over to our airfield in Gillespie and each of them did a touch and go there. Ricardo again had a heavy landing, but better than the last one. Jose's wasn't as good this time, but still they were all pretty safe. We got back to the airfield, shut down and headed home. I was shattered that I went home, had something to eat and hit my pillow. That was Thursday.

Friday was brought with it good weather but strong winds and also my very first PPL lesson. My instructors is an American guy, Kevin Teeter. He's one year younger than me, served in the Marines for 5 years and is also a qualified commerical pilot as well as an instructor. He's really a cool guy. Very patient, very trusting and explains everything to me clearly and concisely, albeit a little fast sometimes. But I let him know if I need him to repeat anything.

The first lesson was basically an opportunity to let me have a go at the controls and to get a feel for the aircraft. My steed today was a Cessna 172 called N6ZP. They're a single engine, high wing mounted plane. Very docile, very forgiving and a really nice plane to fly. Kevin showed me the pre-flight check where we check the interior and exterior of the flight before we even start the engine. He also said that going forward, he'd typically get me to pre-flight and he'd simply double check the fuel and oil. We then sat in the cockpit, I got myself ready and comfy and went through the "Before Engine Start" checklist. There's lots to go through and the location of all the dials and buttons takes a bit of getting used to, but Kevin walked me through it. We then started the engine we then dialled in the Ground Controller to get taxi clearance to the runway. Kevin took her off the stand and then shortly gave me control to get used to taxiing the plane. I do that by using differential braking. There are brake pedals above the rudder pedals that I depress. One for the right hand brake, one for the left. When I want to turn right, I tap the right toe pedal and vice versa. Apparently I got the knack fairly quickly, but every now and then I would use the steering column (called the yoke) which does absolutely nothing on the ground for controlling the plane. I joked that I need to get the "driving the car" concept out of my head and Kevin laughed agreeing that it happens to everyone in the beginning.

After taxiing to the runway we were going to use, we checked the by powering up the engine. That's called the engine run-up test. Everything in the green, we got clearance to line-up and take-off. And away we went. We turned to the North towards Ramona and went to an area near a dirt strip. There Kevin handed me control and explained the controls to me. He then said I could have goes at turning the plane. I told him I noticed that I needed up elevator input when turning and he explained that it's because the into turn wing has less lift that the outer wing and consequently you need up elevator to maintain height. I then experimented with getting the plane in trim. It was so bumpy from the thermals off the low ridges below us that I had serious issues getting her in trim. I never managed to get it in trim properly and also got my trim directions the wrong way round. In other words, trimming nose down instead of up, etc. I had fun though and we then went back to Gillespie. Kevin talked me through the approach to land, letting me fly her down to the runway but then took control to show me how to land. We had a slight crosswind, so he had the into wing down, a little opposite rudder which meant we had the nose pointing at a slightly funny angle. Just before touching down he centred the rudder and we landed one wheel first (the into wind wheel) which is the correct way to land in a crosswind. Taxied back and shut down. I was fairly sweaty after that, since it was about 33C in the cockpit.

After the debrief Kevin said we'd do some turns on the Sunday. So I revised the book for the procedures that night. Saturday was a quiet day. Jose and I went to the beach and then I met my friend Janis who lives in San Diego for dinner.

Sunday was a little bit more intense. Flying Zulu-Papa again. She really is a nice little airplane. Same checks as before, with the only difference being this time that I was doing the take-off!!!! I was SHITTING myself. Had to put in a little rudder and turned right for our Northerly departure a little too early. But Kevin actually complimented me on my control during the take-off. We headed back towards the dirt strip and did some turns, some climbing and some descending. I got more comfortable with the plane. But that DAMN TRIM was bugging the shite out of me still. It didn't help either that we were flying in bumpy conditions again. Kevin told me not to worry, but I promised and vowed to read the book in minute detail on the art of trimming. In fact, that's exactly how the manual put it. I've realised that being an accountant probably isn't the best occupation to have as a pilot. I'm so used to everything ticking and tying, balancing everything and it all being exact, that when I try to fly precisely and trim exactly, the smallest change pissed me off. But I guess I have to de-learn that. The next thing that happend though will be with me for a long time.....my very FIRST LANDING.

Kevin said I'd do the approach just like the last flight. In the last flight he took her at the last minuteWe set her up for the circuit. They call a circuit here in the U.S. a "Pattern". We came almost straight in for the runway we were going to use....RWY 27R. It's a long runway, plenty of room. Kevin called the speeds I should aim for. I was watching the runway and the airspeed indicator, moving my eyes between both. The trick is to aim for a spot on the runway that is not moving up or down in your view on the windscreen. If you have that reference point, then you fly the speed you want and flare at the end. I was expecting Kevin to say "OK, I've got it" but he just said "You're looking good....you're looking REALLY good" He then told me to keep pulling back slowly, slowly, more...more...TOUCHDOWN!!!!! I landed Zulu-Papa and it was a BEAUTY of a landing. I kept the plane on the centreline with the rudder and slowed her down with the brakes. Kevin took her to come off an earlier taxiway and I yelled out "I landed.....I landed". He laughed and said "Yes you did...nicely done!!". On the walk back from the flightline he told me he was amazed, that it's VERY RARE for a student to land a plane on only their second attempt. He sounded dead impressed and chuffed at the same time.

Sunday also brought with it other good news. One of my friends who I've met here at the school, Matt, went solo on Sunday too. He was a bot apprehensive with the wind and the amount of traffic, so he waited until later in the evening when it calmed down. His instructor Enrico gave him the thumbs up to go, and away he went. He did one circuit, a good approach and a one wheeled landing. At the very last minute a gust caught him and he he landed awkwardly, but safely nonetheless. We were all looking from a distance and got the buckets of water ready for him to be doused when he got back. The two of us had Chesire Cat grins on our faces for the rest of the evening and we went out for dinner to celebrate. The news of the day at the airfield was also about the pilot who had to land on the freeway. He was a banner towing pilot, he ran out of fuel apparantly and his engine stopped. Matt was in the air when he heard the Mayday call. it was on the news and everything. We think he's gonna loose his licence because running out of fuel is a cardinal sin.

Monday was a hectic day. I logged three hours in the air doing stalls, slow flight and steep turns. I also managed to NAIL that damn trim wheel. I got everything the right way round....YIPPEE. It also helped with the fact that it was a calm day wind-wise. The stalls were easy to do....when you hear the stall horn go you push nose down, apply full power and control any yaw or roll with the rudder until you're out of the stall. The steep turns were ALSO lots of fun. You basically pick a reference point on the engine cowling (the metal bit that covers the engine on the nose) like a rivet or something and memorise where it is in reference to the horizon. You then pick a pint that you'll turn back to (because you basically do a 360 degree turn), begin your turn, pull back on the control column to maintain height and apply full power to also maintain height. It was a little dizzying, but lots of fun. I only found a good reference point on the second attempt to the right, but the left hand ones were easier. Slow flight was also a lesson that day and it was a hit and miss affair. Haven't mastered that one fully yet and I think I need more practice before I get comfortable. But the next bit was to come was the fun part.....touch and go's. I got the circuit almost licked. Take off, climb, turn left at the freeway, roll wings level, then aim for the valley with some houses on it, left again towards a big blue box. Call to the tower when we're abeam (i.e. when we pass them) and then when abeam the numbers lower power to about 1900 rpm and apply first stage of flaps. Aim for 70 knots of airspeed. At 45 degrees from the runway numbers turn left onto the base leg and apply 2nd stage of flaps and then roll left again onto final. When I'm happy with the approach and I can make the field, then apply full flaps do my landing checks and aim for about 65-60 knots. Steady the approach....steady....steady....steady...OK......pull back...pull back...pull back and flare....."Nice landing Claython!!" Only problem is, every second one seemed to get away from me. Kevin was impressed with one of my recoveries but I wasn't too happy with some of them. The ONLY one that I got wrong was the last one. Came in, flared a little too high and Kevin took her from me. He said that he thought we got a slight crosswind AND thermal component and to not beat myself up over it. I think it was good day yesterday all in all.

Right now I'm studying for my Air Law exam. i need to pass that before I'll be allowed go solo. Solo isn't for another 10 hours yet, but Kevin's estimation is that I shouldn't have any problems. In his words, I have excellent control and awareness of my speeds in the circuits, which most students don't get until hours 10 or so, and I've done 5. And I'm not afraid of the plane and to make it do what I want it to do. We're going to work on smoothing my control inputs and do some more work in the circuit.

I think I'm going to go to the cafe now, get a cold drink, study my Air Law and scope out the two waitresses working there who got their boobs done (hahahaha).

I'll continue to keep you all posted on my progress. Just keep your fingers, toes and everything else crossed that I pass my first exam.

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