Thursday, June 28, 2007

A little of the Right Stuff

This may seem to be off topic, but bear with me. My blog is about becoming a pilot, and this story is about how being a pilot has changed me.

I'm in Florida on business, and today I went to the Kennedy Space Center. It turned out to be a very powerful and surprisingly emotional experience, and part of that is because I now feel some kinship with the astronauts. That may come across as arrogant or lofty - I don't mean it that way. Being a glider pilot is in no way as important or as daring or as tough as being an astronaut. But... they're pilots, we're pilots, and I think I feel maybe 1% or 5% of what they feel. That's not much, but I think it's dramatically different from how I felt before taking the stick and learning to fly. Let me explain.

  • First off, I grew up in the 60's with a deep interest in the space program. I knew as a non-athletic kid with thick glasses, there was no way I was going to be an astronaut, but science was in my blood and I followed the Apollo program closely. I built the models, I read the NASA newsletters, I watched the moon landing in 1969. One of the command module pilots has the same last name as me (it's a pretty unusual name), and so I always wondered if he was related, and was secretly proud of my possible slight connection to the space program. So to visit the place where it all happened was already a thrill.

  • Every time I looked in a capsule or cockpit exhibit, I found myself looking with pilot's eyes for the familiar controls, looking at the visibility through the windows, the tiny space available, and imagining how it would be to fly it. The Mercury capsule has about as much space as our PW5. Being in the Gemini capsule with one other pilot would be about the same as being in our Blanik, although they're side-by-side instead of tandem.

  • The exhibits and the films and simulators at KSC are fabulous, really well done. They're powerful, patriotic, inspiring, and really show the dedication of the people on the ground as well as those in the capsules and shuttles. To walk around and under the giant Saturn V and the others is truly amazing.

  • Each of those craft had a pilot, and at some point the pilot flew the beast for the very first time. I think the experience of my first solo flight, and especially my first flight in a single-seat glider (where no instructional flight was possible), gave me a sense of the bold steps the astronauts took. Those experiences made the impact of the space flights so much more real. One of the astronauts described the feeling of being strapped in, ready to go, waiting for the launch to occur, and thinking that he had done all the preparation he could do... now he just needed to fly it and do his best. Exactly!

  • There's an IMAX 3D film called Magnificent Desolation about being on the moon. Some of it's up close, it's in your face, it's big and it's extremely realistic. We've all seen the video of the lunar module and the astronauts... they're all fairly close shots. But this film has some shots (no doubt artificial) showing the tiny LM as nearly a speck alongside a big lunar mountain... very small and very far from home. I thought of a photo I have of a glider climbing the face of a big mountain in the Sierras. The glider is so small against the mountain you have to look to see it. It's not me flying in that picture, but I've done some similar flights, not quite so dramatic. But still... the sense of isolation, of being tiny surrounded by something huge, is very powerful.

  • There's a scene in MD where a moonwalking astronaut leaves a photo of his family, perhaps to be found by someone else someday. His kids were 5 and 7! Imagine the risk he was taking and the sacrifice he was making! I can't really relate to that... I do fairly low-risk recreational soaring. But there is always that element of having to rely on myself, my preparation, and the training I have received, to get myself home. Even a 30-mile cross-country flight is a long way from home the first time.

  • There's a feature called Astronaut Encounter wherein an astronaut gives a speech in a theater, with a slide-show backdrop, and then greets visitors and takes pictures with them. Imagine the serendipity: today's astronaut was the command module pilot who might be related to me! You can bet I was near the front of that audience. Later I introduced myself and he was surprised, and told me there's another fellow with the same name who runs a major NASA research facility. So maybe I'll do a little more research into the possible family link. Amazing - and one more event that added to the emotional impact of the day.

OK, so I'm rambling a bit, and you might think I'm stretching the association between a pilot and and astronaut. But I felt it. One in a thousand is a pilot, one in 10,000 is a glider pilot, one in a hundred thousand is a test pilot, one in a million is an astronaut. What pilot would not aspire to flying to the moon? Learning to fly is about finding out if you yourself have a little of the Right Stuff - these guys have tons of it. Knowing what little I know made me feel so much more in awe of their accomplishments, and I would not have felt that if I had never taken an aircraft up by myself as a pilot.

As always, I invite readers to share their comments and experiences.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Grob 103 Rear Seat

Today I helped T and an instructor work on the instruments in the Grob 103. It needed a test flight to see if they worked correctly, so the CFI and I took it up together. That was a good opportunity to get a signoff to fly the Grob from the rear seat. You may wonder why that needs a signoff... well, there are a number of differences between flying front and rear seat (in any glider):
  • First of all, the forward view is different, sometimes rather restricted. In this case, it's not too bad. The front passenger's head blocks the view directly forward, which makes it hard to see the towplane. CFI suggested I tow just a little to one side of center, which helps quite a bit. Actually, with the big canopy, the view is not as restricted as from the rear seat of the Blanik L13. And in the Blanik, you get quite a lot of reflections on the inside of the canopy. In the Grob, that did not seem to be nearly as noticeable. The view down and forward was just good - no problem for landing.
  • The view down and behind is blocked by the wing. But not a problem. My view of the runway during the downwind and turn to base were fine.
  • The posture is quite reclined, depending on how you set up the cushions. CFI thinks it's uncomfortable. I thought it was fine.

Anyway, it's different enough that it's worth having an instructional flight. Mine went fine. So now if I want to take a passenger in the Grob, they can sit in front and get the best view.

I mentioned the instruments... the rear variometer turned out to be bad, or hooked up wrong, or something. Its indication was useless. So for most of the flight I was going by feel or asking CFI what his vario said. Quite a pain, and I would not fly a passenger with it bad. Hopefully we'll get it fixed or replaced soon. And that was the purpose of that flight, right?

The other thing was that the airspeed indicators were off a bit. The front reads about 5kt less than the back. CFI seemed to think I was flying too slow (i.e. thought his was correct) so I went by his. But on landing that meant mine indicate 60kt instead of the target 55kt, and the results were consistent with 60kt: longer float and rollout. We actually stopped past the end of the box a bit. So I conclude that the rear ASI is correct, and the front under-reports.

It was about 10:30 am, and there was a little bit of weak, scattered lift which we took turns working. I realized that I have not been a passenger in a glider for about 4 years. Ever since I started taking lessons, I've done all the flying. It was strange just doing nothing. And at times slightly disorienting, without the tactile and kinesthetic feedback of flying the plane, especially when I was looking inside the cockpit (reading instruments for our testing). A good reminder of what passengers feel! We ended up with just a 27-minute flight.

Later in the day I flew the PW-5, taking off at 15:12. Although there had been pretty good lift until then, marked by strong dust devils, by the time I got up the wind was blowing out the lift and no dust devils were visible anymore. I found some zero sink and scraped out a 25-minute flight. On the plus side, we were having a contest, which included a spot landing event. On the rollout after landing, you have to see how close you can come to a cone without going past. I stopped 10.5 inches from the cone. As far as I know, that was second place... the mark to beat was 8 inches. I'll have to wait to find out the results.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Grob 103 checkout - again

Our club's Grob 103 Twin Astir was out of service for several months for some repairs. Because it was for such a long time, our instructors decided everyone who wants to fly it should get checked out and signed off again, a decision with which I agree. Due to my availabilty and the instructors', it's taken me a couple of months to arrange it. Yesterday was the day.

Flight 1 was to about 3000' AGL. Very good wings-level takeoff. The Grob, especially ours, is pretty heavy on the controls, especially ailerons. So it takes a *lot* of stick pressure if you get wing wobble at low speed, before you get much control authority. The tow was weird... low for a long time. I don't know if the towplane was low on power or if the pilot just chose a very flat flight path. CFI said all his tows were that way. Much lower than I've experienced there, even in the heavy 103.

I had forgotten how great the visibility is from the front seat of the G103. The canopy is huge, and comes down pretty far on the sides. And being new, it's perfectly clear and clean with a blue tint. What a view!

We found a little zero sink, but not much. The flight ended up at 20 minutes. Good approach and landing, but with one mistake. I used my airbrakes on base leg, and part of final approach. I judged that we were undershooting a little, so I closed them all the way. We were still undershooting a bit (not dangerously) but I figured we were just getting more headwind or some sink. Then CFI said to close my brakes, and I said they were. But when I looked out, they were up about an inch. I had closed them until I felt a bump, which I assumed was the locking detent... but apparently what I was feeling was some bump before they were closed. And they are so effective, an inch is very noticeable! Once I pushed harder and closed them (still not locked closed), we proceeded normally. I even paid better attention to my aiming point and landed nicely within the box.

Because of that issue, CFI wanted to see one more flight, even though my pattern and touchdown were great and my speed control was right on. So we went up for a pattern tow, or so I thought. Remember that low tow flightpath? By the time we got to where I would normally release from a pattern tow, we were only at about 700' AGL, which would have made for an abbreviated pattern. So I hung on. By the time we got to the initial point area again, we were at about 1300' AGL, so I had to waste some altitude before entering the pattern. This pattern and approach and rollout were just fine. CFI liked my approach planning very much.

So now I'm signed off to fly the Grob, which is a very nice ship for passengers. But... one of the instructors will be taking it to a cross-country workshop for a week, and then we're talking about placing it at Tehachapi for most of the summer. That'll be great for some XC mentoring - maybe I'll get my Silver there soon - but not so great for passengers.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Just because you can doesn't mean you should

I observed and was told of some very questionable practices regarding how some people teach and practice launching and soaring. While some of these pilots and instructors may be highly skilled, the practices they are teaching may not be appropriate for students and low-time pilots and can get their students into dangerous situations. I spoke with one person who is a long-time power pilot but a short-time glider pilot... I don't know if he has his PPG rating or is still a student. He told me stories which go along with what I observed and were very disturbing.

1. Immediate Pull-Up From my instructors and from some nationally known instructors who spoke at the recent BITS seminar, I learned that in a ground launch it is safer to gain some altitude (at least 150'-200') before beginning the steep part of the climb. I observed some experienced pilots beginning their 40-degree climb as little as 10-20 feet from the ground, as soon as they get any airspeed. They seemed to think this was the best way, and that we were wasting time and cable by climbing gently before pulling up. The problem with this practice is that if you have a loss of winch power, a cable break, or any other anomaly that requires you to abort the launch, you may find yourself at a steep pitch angle relative to the ground and needing to nose over quickly to execute a landing. I realize that in most cases you would have sufficient airspeed into the relative wind to avoid stalling, but that speed will decay very quickly because you are climbing. You need to nose over very quickly to regain safe flying speed (by using gravity to accelerate) and then round out and land straight ahead. If this occurs at low altitude or if you do not recognize the power loss immediately, you could find yourself stalled or at least mushing and have insufficient altitude to execute the pitch-over. If this occurs at 200' or higher, pushing over to regain flying speed and then landing straight ahead is a non-event.

I did not observe any incidents or problems personally. All rope breaks or power losses I saw occurred at safe altitudes. But the pilot I spoke with said he had personally had what he called a "six-G landing," what many would call a "pancake" - landing hard straight down either still rounding out or perhaps stalled. Here's how he related it to me. In one launch, he experienced a loss of winch power but the winch recovered promptly and he continued the launch. In the very next launch, he experienced another loss of power, and he figured the winch paused again, but this time he was fooled: it was an actual rope break. He waited for a few seconds, expecting the winch power to recover, then finally realized it wasn't going to and nosed over. Problem was, this occurred at about 100' AGL. He lost at least 25' while waiting, another 25' or so while nosing over, and barely had enough altitude to round out to his "six-G" landing. It did not seem to occur to him that the low altitude pitch-up is what made this dangerous. More altitude would have given him time to recover. A rope break at low altitude is not a problem if the pitch angle is still low.

2. Low-altitude Thermalling This pilot and others spoke admiringly of an instructor's ability to find a thermal and save a flight, from as low as 100'-150' AGL. They spoke of him being on final approach, hitting a thermal and flying away. Where I learned to soar, and where I have rented sailplanes, that would be unthinkable. Our rule is "no thermalling in the pattern - period". The standard lower limit, where one must commit to landing, is 1000' AGL. At another gliderport I visited, the limit was 1200'. Once you enter the pattern, that's it! Now, I realize we're talking about winch launching, and a 1000' limit would really limit your ability to find ANY thermal, when you're only achieving 1500' or so from the launch. So I personally would be comfortable lowering the commit level to about 800', especially if there are many alternative landing sites on the airfield. But 150' ?!?!?!? I did see a launch abort at about 400' due to a rope break, and the instructor took over and caught a thermal right over the launch zone, and the student got to go on a soaring flight. But it's another questionable thing to teach a student. Here's why:

That same pilot mentioned above tried to pull off his instructor's trick: he flew through a thermal off the approach end of the runway, about 150' AGL, and decided to try to work it rather than continue his landing (I don't know if he was on base or final leg). Only problem was, the thermal gave him lift for about a half of a circle, then turned to sink... and now he was pointed AWAY from his runway. He could not make it back, crashed the glider into the wash off the end of the runway, and destroyed the nose. The pilot was unhurt.

The problem with this whole set of circumstances is that this pilot thinks he SHOULD be able to do these things, because he sees an instructor do them. So he's had two "hard landings" and he only has 15 hours of glider time logged!

The FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook has this to say:
The safety practices emphasized by instructors have a long lasting effect on students. Generally, students consider their instructor to be a model of perfection whose habits they attempt to imitate, whether consciously or unconsciously. The instructor's advocacy and description of safety practices mean little to a student if the instructor does not demonstrate them consistently.

The flight instructor must not only teach students to know their own and their equipment's limitations, but must also teach them to be guided by those limitations.