Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Thermal Made Visible

For as long as I can remember I have occasionally seen flocks of seagulls gathering over our town - up to about 200 at a time, wheeling in circles in a group a few hundred feet tall. Later on I remember seeing the ones at the top heading out in a line, usually toward the ocean. I thought it looked like a thread being pulled from a spool - the flock eventually turned into a long line of gulls and disappeared. I never really noticed that they entered at the bottom and left from the top - I just figured it was some sort of holding pattern as they arrived from feeding all over town.

That was before I knew about thermals.

After I learned to soar, I realized that the gulls in those flock never flap - they're soaring in some thermal over a parking lot or dark roof or something. They're obviously "tanking up" before heading out on a long flight. The dimensions of the flock - horizontal and vertical - probably define the size and shape of the thermal.

So far, so obvious.

This is one of the few times that a thermal is actually visible. The other time that thermals are visible is when they're filled with dust and we call them a "dust devil". Usually those are tall and thin and often moving laterally, but are pretty much vertical columns of dust.

Yesterday I saw another seagull-filled thermal as I was driving on the freeway. The day before we had had "Santa Ana winds" - a local name for a foehn wind. This day the wind had settled down to a breeze - but was still probably between 5 and 10 knots. As I passed by the flock, I could see that the column of gulls was skewed at a 45-degree angle to the vertical. They were still thermaling, but were being carried downwind at the same rate they were rising.

We glider pilots all know that thermals are skewed by the wind - but we very rarely get to see it. The hundreds of gulls made the distortion perfectly clear. What a great teaching tool that would be. Now if only we can arrange for flock of seagulls during ground school...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A short flight under lowering skies

Last Saturday, the weather looked there might be a bit of an opportunity to soar. A cold front was moving in but was well to the north. We could see some lenticular clouds about 15-20 miles away that indicated winds coming our way. If the winds ahead of the front were strong enough, ridge soaring might work. If the sky remained clear, and the wind was NOT strong, some thermal soaring might be possible. A special event going on at the airport meant that we couldn't launch until about 1:00, and this time of the year the sun goes behind the hills about 3:00, so the window would be narrow.

In the morning some of us spent some time talking with a pilot who's flown at Elsinore quite a bit, and observing the sky. The wind was coming in from the ocean side, causing some cumulus clouds to build on the west side of the coastal hills. If they came far enough east we might be able to get up underneath them. As the first launch time approached, they were getting closer and some had concave bottoms indicating lift.

I was about third in line to launch. As we got up to 3000' AGL over the hills, about the typical altitude to release, we were nearly up to the base of the clouds, and the clouds were much grayer and more widespread than they had been just a half hour before. I found a little lift as I released, and a little zero-sink for a while. But the clouds were within about 1000' of the top of the ridge, which left little room for hunting for any lift. Before long I had to drop off the ridge onto the side of the hill, and from the on found nothing but moderate sink. I knew that was a possibility, because if the wind was still coming over the hills from the ocean, it'd be spilling down into the valley.

With a few minutes of slight lift and zero-sink, and then some moderate sink, I ended up with just an 18-minute flight. When I got out of the cockpit after landing, the cloud cover was about 65-75% and the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees. If there was a window of usable lift, I had missed it. The only other private pilot who took off that day got skunked too.

That's OK - I was glad to fly for even a short time, as I'm still focusing on learning the area, getting used to the runways and operations, so I can start planning to take my Commercial practical test at this location.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Weather and planning for soaring

I wrote about this four years ago. I've changed my weather and planning routine, so here's an updated version.

For every day when I plan local soaring, I prepare by getting as much info as I can about the conditions. Here's what I usually look at. One or two days before:
  • If I am able to plan ahead, I check out general pressure patterns at the National Hydrometeorological Prediction Center at Roll your mouse over each tab to get a decent moving display of the fronts. Otherwise I just keep an eye on the fronts and pressures from the TV news.
On the morning I'm planning to fly:
  • I start by looking at AOPA's Temporary Flight Restrictions and NOTAM page at If there's a TFR due to firefighting or presidential movement, that's a show-stopper.

  • Weather Underground at includes a forecast of temps and winds by hour for the day. I write down the maximum forecast temperature for later use in my Thermal Forecast spreadsheet. This max temperature is usually the same as forecast by the National Weather Service.

  • Look again at the pressure patterns at the NCEP to see if anything's changed.

  • DUATS at to get several pieces of information: 1) synopsis for my region of the state, including forecast sky conditions for the day, 2) terminal forecasts for the two biggest fields closest to my home field, 3) look for any severe weather forecast, 4) temperatures aloft (which I write down for my Thermal Forecast spreadsheet), and 5) NOTAMs. Another major reason for using DUATS is that you have to log in with your Pilot's Certificate number, and they keep a record of it. If anything were to happen, I could prove that I got a DUATS weather briefing that day.

  • Get a SKEW-T plot from NOAA's RUC Analyses/Forecasts site. I use this to look for inversions and how they might change through the day. You can create bookmarks for the forecast for your favorite airports.

  • Next I plug the temperatures into my Thermal Forecast spreadsheet and print it one or more of the charts.

  • Finally, I look at the NWS's local soaring forecast at I look at it last because I like to form my own opinion of the thermal tops and strengths, and then see if it agrees with this popular forecast. I print this and take it to the field to share.
This sounds like a lot, but it doesn't really take that long.

I used to look at the wind forecast using the ADDS Flight Path Tool from but have got out of that habit. Now that I'll be flying at a site that can take advantage of ridge soaring, I might start checking it again.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Flying at Skylark Airport / Lake Elsinore

Our club has arranged to place one or more gliders at Skylark Airport, where towplanes are operated by the Lake Elsinore Soaring Club. (We're placing gliders at several airports during this transition period, to see which ones work out the best for the club.) LESC has been flying there for many years. Several of us went there this week to learn about their operation and get a "field checkout".

This is a private airport, and consists of two dirt strips. There are a few things that make this field a bit different from what many of us are used to, so we all need a little education before we fly:
  • A very active skydiving company operates here, and in fact is the landlord of LESC, so they have priority. Twin Otter jump planes are constantly taking off and landing. Groups of up to about 24 parachutists land just on the other side of the runways, sometimes coming in from random directions. It's not a problem - skydiving and soaring have coexisted here for a long time - but it's something we need to coordinate with and watch out for.

  • The skydiving "drop zone" restricts where gliders can fly. We can fly through it as needed, but cannot linger or thermal in the DZ. There are plenty of places to soar over the mountains away from the DZ, but we need to stay away from some parts of the town and lake as much as possible.

  • The taxiways etc. are all at one end of the runways (29 /11), up against some buildings and a road with some power lines. Takeoffs are always to the northwest (29) regardless of wind conditions. That means sometimes takeoff is downwind. If the tailwind gets too strong, glider takeoffs stop. Glider landings are mostly to the southeast (11) but are allowed "over the wires" to 29 if necessary. Towplane and jump plane landings are always on 11 too, sometimes on both runways.

  • This all means that takeoffs and landings must be coordinated because sometimes they're in opposite directions. It's not a problem, but it requires some learning. All this coordination of runway use and skydiving means that radio use is mandatory. At Hemet, although the airport was shared with power planes, the power and glider patterns were on opposite sides and exclusive runways. Radio use was optional, and actually was discouraged by the glider FBO... that was a strange situation I won't get into due to pending legal action. Anyway, we all need to be much more diligent about our radio skills.
So I went for a field checkout flight. Takeoff and tow were fairly normal, though the fine dirt of the runway makes for a few seconds of nearly total "brownout". The soaring was not much good since it was late in the day, but the point was just to get familiar with the area anyway. My radio battery died, but the instructor had a backup radio for the landing calls. Pattern and landing were normal, though I did have a tailwind on landing. We didn't snag any parachutes on the way down. ;-) The runway is much longer than the little dirt area we had at Hemet, so there are a few nuances of landing and rollout that we can learn.

All in all, I think this will work out as a good place for us to fly while the Hemet-Ryan complaint makes its way through the FAA. And after I get thoroughly familiar with flying in the area, I should be able to arrange to take my Commercial and Instructor practical tests here - those tests have been on hold for a couple of months.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Last Plane Out

All the other gliders are gone from Hemet-Ryan Airport. All the T-hangars on the glider side have been sold, dismantled, and removed. The word "GLIDERS" on Runway 22 has been painted over with black, and a big yellow X has been painted over it. The outhouses are gone, and the shade structure outside the Sailplane Enterprises office is in pieces on the ground.

It's quiet.

There's one glider still tied down - one of our club's Blanik L13's. The one I soloed in. The one I first reached 10,000 feet in.

We've come to tow it away to its new temporary home at an airport not far away. But knowing I won't be coming back to this field for a while, the other airport feels very far away.

A towplane will come from the other airport, and a pilot and instructor will take off from the bigger Runway 22. The pilot hasn't done a cross-country aerotow before, and hasn't landed at the other airport. So in keeping with our club's purpose, the last flight from here will be an instructional flight!

I'm here to help push and to run the wing. So we prep the plane, untie it, and put the tie-downs inside the glider instead of leaving them on the ground... we'll be needing them elsewhere after the glider's one-way flight. Technically there's no reason they could not take off from 23 - it's not damaged - but the County has spoken. We push it all the way to the taxiway on the other side of 22.

Due to a mix-up and some technical problems, the towplane takes a long time to arrive. We have time to hang out and talk. A couple of vehicles drive out and the drivers chat with us while we wait. It's pretty rare to see a glider on this side of the field. A few planes and a helicopter come and go... pilots taxiing by wave to us... it's late in the afternoon, so it's pretty dead.

Finally, about 5:30 the towplane arrives and we hook up and launch. The first and only time I've seen a glider take off from 22 (well, there's a motorglider or two who use it). They climb, circle the field once, and head west into the lowering sun.

I get in the car we came in and drive out the gate. There's no one on this side of the airport to say good-bye to.

But... we may be back. Next week we will file a formal complaint with the FAA in Washington, D.C., with the support of AOPA and Cal Pilots. If that works, and gliders get to return, it could turn out better than ever. Some of our leaders have developed the concept of a "Glider Park", and have presented some conceptual drawings to some of the community leaders of Hemet. So... we'll see. While the complaint makes its way through the FAA, we'll keep flying our silent ships over other fields.

Friday, October 02, 2009

In Transition

The county has "X"-ed the glider runway at Hemet. OCSA and HACA leaders and attorneys feel we are in a good position to get this reversed through the FAA's formal complaint process. We're getting lots of publicity in the press. I won't say more about the clubs' strategy for now, just in case someone from the county is listening.

Our club board now has a plan for continuing our flight and training at several other gliderports while we continue the battle with the county (but we're not announcing it quite yet... still some logistics to work out). So we'll have some opportunities to fly over some different terrain for a while. I'm hoping to fly at one or the other over the next couple of weekends. Once we are established in our temporary locations, I'll look into which site provides the best option for taking my Commercial and Instructor tests.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Forced to move

On September 1, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to grant a six-month extension for soaring at Hemet-Ryan, with a possible three-month extension beyond that. It looked like we had some time to work with the FAA and AOPA and SSA on helping the airport management understand the value of soaring to the airport and the Hemet community.

This week we found out what the word of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors is worth - absolutely nothing! On Friday they abruptly rescinded the extension, and all gliders are to be off the field by the original deadline - October 1.

I suppose this should not be surprising, since we have already seen that the Economic Development Agency is also behaving dishonestly. In a letter to the FAA dated August 18, 2009, the EDA states they have had "extensive dialogue" with the glider pilots. This is a lie. I expected better from the elected Board of Supervisors.

In late August, a new organization was formed called the Hemet Airport Community Association. This group has already met with glider pilots, power pilots, members of other pilots' associations, and aviation attorneys. HACA has initiated a legal fund and has engaged an attorney to continue the fight with the county. I think some of the power private pilots are concerned that the county's misguided attempt to convert Hemet-Ryan into a business jet airport will threaten their right to fly light aircraft, just as it is threatening the glider activity. Although our club is being forced to leave, the battle is not yet over.

Fortunately it appears that our club now has a viable option for soaring from another airport, and we could be flying club ships there as early as next weekend. I won't say more about that until the arrangement is formally announced.

So instead of flying yesterday, a bunch of us spent the day packing up the contents of our clubhouse and moving it to temporary storage.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Gonna do some spins?"

We don't usually wear parachutes in our two-place Blanik trainers. So when we do, everyone we meet seems to ask, "Gonna do some spins?" Yep, that's what was on our agenda today. I'm working with an instructor to finish up training flights required for my Commercial and Instructor practical tests. One of the requirements is "...instructional proficiency in stall awareness, spin entry, spins, and spin recovery procedures...". Technically you don't need to wear parachutes when doing spins with an instructor, but we all think it's a good idea!

We took a 4200' AGL tow and were careful about doing clearing turns because we knew two other gliders were in the area. We also made sure we were well clear of the Victor airway that runs south of the airport - you can't do aerobatics within 4NM of an airway. We were able to do four spins and recoveries and still had a few hundred feet before reaching 1500' AGL, the minimum altitude for completing aerobatic maneuvers.

For three of the spins, I entered with the traditional method: pulling up into an obvious stall before using full rudder. For one of them, I did a more subtle spin entry that should be really useful in training students. I just slowed down to stall speed and kicked full rudder, much like what would happen in a too-slow approach with a skidding turn. In this case the nose was not in an obviously high attitude, although of course my angle of attack was high to get the slow speed. A slow entry like this really shows how a spin could sneak up on you.

I noticed more G force when pulling out of some of these spins than I did on some previous solo spins. Maybe I was eager to complete the recovery with little loss of altitude, and pulled up a little aggressively?

I made sure to enter one of the spins to the right, since I had noticed I tended to do them to the left in the past. That's probably because I favor left turns in general. I read an article somewhere that explained that: we control the stick with our right hands, and it's easier to push across to the left than to pull to the right - it's just a more natural angle for your arm and wrist.

We didn't try to go soaring, because we had other ground school work to do that afternoon. For the landing, I worked on using the wind to my advantage on base and final legs. My altitude on base leg has been right for no-wind conditions, but sometimes I underestimate how much a headwind component is going to knock me back on final approach. In the middle of the base leg, my instructor pointed out that I was a little high, and I said that was intentional. I slipped it a bit and kept my glide path a little higher than I've been doing. And guess what: touchdown was right in the box, instead of a couple feet short as I sometimes do.

We glider pilots (at least in my club and at my location) are real sticklers for accurate landings. There's a line in the sand that you are not to touch down before. We judge every landing in relation to that line. And if you're trying to land to commercial requirements, you have to stop in just a few hundred feet, so you don't want to land much beyond that line or you use up too much stopping space. So there's a very narrow sweet spot about 10 feet long that we're aiming for. And that line is imaginary, between two cones. There used to be a chalk line, but it's long since worn away. So you're using your peripheral vision and quick glances left and right to estimate your approach over that line. Very tricky to get just right! But it means you learn to put the ship down where you want it, within 10 feet or so. That came in very handy when I landed out at Olancha, where the dirt strip had a few bushes here and there.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Airport Battle on the Front Page

Our fight to keep soaring at Hemet-Ryan made the front page of the Press-Enterprise today. Check it out... and please pass it on to anyone interested in aviation.

More pictures are available here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

More on the movement to save soaring at Hemet-Ryan

Listen to an interview published by

Closing in on Commercial

Friday and Saturday I worked on ground school and instructional flights in final preparation to take my Commercial practical test at the end of this month. We also went over the questions I missed on my written Instructor test. My instructor agreed with my disagreement with the only two questions I missed that actually related to gliders.

Some flights included practice teaching maneuvers, and that went really well. Two flights included practicing a left-hand pattern, something we don't usually do at this airport. That means flying in the power aircraft pattern, and crossing over to the glider runway to land. We actually fly our pattern a ways inside the power pattern, so it's not really much of a conflict. It also means monitoring the radio and the sky to make sure we know where all the power planes are. (Usually we're over on the other side of the airport, so except for the base leg, we are totally out of each others' way.) I've done this before, a long time ago, though I see I never blogged about it. Anyway, except for entering the pattern a little higher, using different landmarks, and extending the downwind leg a bit, it's no big deal as long as the power traffic is light. We did choose to delay one of the landings while two CDF tankers took off - not that our landing would have been a conflict with their takeoff.

The only thing that made it - well, interesting - was that both the front and rear airspeed indicators were underreporting by at least 5 to 10 knots. We detected that while on tow. So I flew the entire pattern and landing (both times) with minimal reference to the ASI - relying on wind noise and angle of attack (attitude) to gauge my airspeed. Actually, that's a good thing to practice!

So if all goes as planned, we have one more requirement to complete next weekend, then I'll have my endorsement to take the Commercial test, which I already have scheduled. I need to fill out my application and gather all my endorsements etc. for a review with the DPE next weekend.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Two Flights Preparing for Practical Tests

Today I got in the last of my ten solo flights as required for my Commercial practical test. I'll still keep practicing, but at least now I have the required number of solo flights logged. Although there was lift available, I didn't really work it much because I wanted to get in two takeoffs and landings. Wing-down takeoffs are now easy. I boxed the wake on both tows. The first time, I hit some sink on the low-tow leg, and got way low - that was weird! So I made sure to do it on the next flight too, and that time it was very good.

For the first pattern and landing, I did the no-drag-devices routine and that went well. My landing was a little longer than the first box, but the no-flaps landing doesn't have to be an accuracy landing. For the second one, I did the regular flaps-n-spoilers pattern, and that went fine too. With about a 10-knot headwind, the Blanik stops in the first box really nicely.

My deadline for completing my Commercial and Instructor practical tests got moved up! I thought I had until the end of September. Now I find out the operator and DPE is planning to shut down a week earlier. And I had a vacation of nearly two weeks already booked and paid for in early September. So it's going to be a tight squeeze. It may still be doable. I now have an appointment in late August to take the Commercial test. That is, if I can get in the final flights I need with my instructor - we've had some scheduling issues. And if I get the instructor's sign-off. I think that should be OK, but there are a few things that needed work, so I need to demonstrate mastery of those. And then if all goes well, the Instructor test in late September... if all goes well.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Passed my Flight Instructor written test

Today I took the last of the written tests I need, the Flight Instructor - Glider. It's 100 multiple-choice questions. They give you 2.5 hours, and I think I used about an hour and a quarter. (One of my test-taking strategies is to not be in a rush to finish - go back and recheck every question.) I knew I would pass - you only need a 65% score to pass, and my practice test scores were in the 87-91% range. I got 85%, lower than I expected. I got 95% on my Commercial, and 100% on my Fundamentals of Instructing.

You might ask, "Why do you care about your score, as long as you passed?" Well, you have to spend time with an instructor to cover any areas of knowledge that you missed. So I'd prefer to self-study and get a high score, and not have to use instructor time for reviewing it afterward.

They don't tell you what questions you missed, they just give you "learning statement codes" that indicate the general topic area. By going back to the practice test software, you can pretty much figure out which ones you missed.

Of the 15 I missed:
  • 6 were totally irrelevant to glider flight.
  • 4 were about documents and regulations, the kind of things I can look up when needed
  • 3 were real misses on things I should know (mostly weather)
  • 1 I don't know why I missed - maybe hit the wrong letter, but my double-check should have caught that.
  • 1 I disagree with their answer and will have to do some research
Only two misses were directly related to soaring or gliders.

There are many questions that I think are totally irrelevant to the FI-Glider test, in that they relate only to powered flight. Things like VOR and ADF navigation (which gliders don't have), flight into Class B airspace (which we don't do nor do we have avionics for), and magnetic compass and wind correction angles (which glider pilots rarely use because of our circling flight and meandering paths). I guess the reason they are on the FI-Glider test is that an instructor could get an initial certificate for gliders and then later go on to get a power rating and instruct in that realm, so they want you to know that stuff. But as I understand it, you have to take another set of tests for the power rating, so why not cover the power-only stuff in that later learning track? Maybe someone can explain the logic to me someday. Meanwhile, I just figure I'm going to miss a certain percentage of those questions, and I just make sure I'm really solid on the stuff that does apply.

I've figured out why I can't learn some of the irrelevant stuff and have it "stick". Maybe others can relate to this as well. It's that some of these ideas are what I call initially arbitrary. There's nothing for me to "hook into" to resolve the arbitrary questions, so I remain uncertain of the correct answer regardless of how many times I study it. Until I have some direct experience with the topic, there's no way to be sure which of the possible arbitrary answers is correct. Let me give you an example:

A VOR receiver is used for radio-based navigation. It's used in power planes, but not in gliders, so I've never seen one. The dial shows you a left or right indication with a needle, depending on... what someone arbitrarily decided to show. Way back when, the designers could have decided that a left indication means "the VOR transmitter is off to the left". Or it could mean "the airplane is to the left of the VOR transmitter". Either one would be useful, but the way you use it would be totally opposite. And I'm sure they chose one or the other and have stuck with it forever. That's why I call it initially arbitrary. And I'm sure that after one or two flights, with the feedback that comes from seeing the effect of correct and incorrect usage, it'd make sense, it'd be locked in my mind and would no longer be arbitrary. But until I see a VOR and how it works, it's all theoretical to me... and arbitrary, because either indication could be equally valid, and so it's hard to remember with certainty.

That's the same reason I don't even try to memorize seldom-used phone numbers. They're arbitrary, and hard to remember without frequent use. 532-6398 is just as valid as 523-3689... so how can I be sure?

Similarly, "west variation" and "east variation" for magnetic compasses are arbitrary designations. Does variation mean "which way magnetic north is from true north" or the other way around? Either would be a valid basis for a system of navigation. Get off on the wrong foot, and all your calculations will be reversed, yet self-consistent. So until I actually use a magnetic compass to get somewhere, it's not going to stick.

So, I'm happy with an 85% score. If the test didn't include lots of questions about power flight, I'd be a lot happier.

All of the questions were about aerodynamics, navigation, weather, regulations, procedures, and documentation, just more detailed than on the Private and Commercial tests. None of the questions were about instructing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stop The Closure of Hemet-Ryan Gliderport

Join SSHT and Write the Supervisor in Charge!

As the first (of possibly many) steps, we need to organize ourselves and communicate to the politicians our displeasure with the closing of Hemet Ryan to gliders. With Oct 1st coming soon this need is immediate, so please do these two things TODAY.

1- Write and encourage everyone possible to write to Supervisor Stone expressing their displeasure with the loss of soaring at Hemet Ryan to the aviation community.
2- For further updates, join the Save Soaring at Hemet Today (SSHT) Google News Group at:

The county supervisor over Hemet Ryan is Jeff Stone, Riverside County Supervisor, Third District. His address is:

Supervisor Jeff Stone
43950 E. Acacia, Suite A
Hemet, CA 92543

Perhaps easier, Supervisor Stone has a website with a “Constituent Assistance Request Form” at

• State that you are against the closing of Hemet Ryan to glider operations in the first sentence.

• Ask that Supervisor Jeff Stone assist in preventing the closure.

• State that in your “pilot’s opinion” from actually flying at the site that the operation of Runway 23 is historically safe and future improvements are easily attainable.

• State there is no acceptable local alternative airport for soaring at Hemet

• If you live in Riverside County, do state that you do.

Who should write? As many as possible…everyone (not just pilots) who wants to see soaring continue at Hemet Ryan.

The SSHT Google NewsGroup is at:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hot and Stable

Although this weekend wasn't as blisteringly hot as last weekend, it was still about 98F and quite humid. The various forecasts predicted possibly good soaring, but it was not to be. I think the main reason was a very strong inversion. As part of my morning weather analysis, I use a little web site from NOAA which provides an interpolated "sounding" plot for most any airport. (You can find it at I use the one for March Air Reserve Base, which is pretty close to Hemet. It showed a very strong inversion at 5,000 MSL, effectively putting a lid on most thermal activity. It also showed an interesting convergence of the temperature and dew point from 18,000 to 25,000. Which means if you could get up high, you'd find thick cumulus clouds. By 10:30 there were already cumulonimbus forming at about 13,000 over the mountains. They overdeveloped and it looked like they produced rain all afternoon.

So I just planned to do another commercial/instructor practice flight in a Blanik. I always hope to find some lift to offset the stalls and slips I'm practicing. A few guys reported some thermals in midafternoon, but due to insufficient tow plane capacity, I didn't get up until after 3:30, and what little lift there may have been was gone. I spent much of the afternoon pushing gliders around, running the wing for others, and waiting in the hot sun.

I practiced boxing the wake, removing slack line on tow, then shallow slow-flight turns, incipient stalls, speed control while entering turns, and a full stall. There was a little zero-sink air and a little strong sink. I flew over the airport to review the pattern for the power runway - the examiner may want me to fly a pattern on the other side with the power traffic, so I plan to practice that one day soon.

As described before, I'm practicing flying the pattern with no drag devices (flaps or spoilers) because that seems to be an item on the commercial practical test. I think my directional control in the forward slip for the full downwind leg was really good, as well as a turning slip to the base leg. And I made sure to be looking for traffic in both patterns the whole time - that's another item the examiner is strict about, but it's always been a good habit of mine anyway.

Once on final approach, it became obvious I was not going to need to reverse my forward slip direction as I had been planning to practice. I was not going to need any slip at all... in fact, I was going to land short. What the...?? Only later when I thought about it did I figure out what had happened and why:
  1. During the 45-degree leg (the pattern entry), for some reason I had a hard time spotting the wind sock. I knew that there had been a fairly strong wind, about 14-18 knots when I took off, and I wanted to be sure to know what it was doing so I could plan my slipping pattern. That turned out to be a bigger distraction than I realized.

  2. I switched over to AWOS to get the wind, and waiting for it consumed most of my 45-leg time, putting me a little behind with my downwind turn, slip setup, and radio call.

  3. So although I got the wind direction right, I failed to adjust my pattern speed for the wind strength. That had little effect on downwind and base, but when I turned final, that insufficient airspeed meant that I didn't penetrate the now-headwind, and I ended up short... and wondering why.
So what I learned is that I should get the wind from AWOS well in advance of entering the pattern, so I'm not rushed. Then make sure to use the "S" for speed in the checklist to choose my pattern speed as well as compensate for the wind direction. That's second nature on a normal pattern, but for this no-drag-device approach, I've been thinking too much about the wind direction for the slip, and not enough about the whole FUSTALL checklist. More to practice! I'm planning to fly every weekend that I'm in town in August and September.

On the other hand, my study and practice tests for the CFI written tests are going really well, and I plan to take the test within the next two weeks.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Personal Breakthrough with Spins

The instructor I've been working with on my Commercial and Instructor training was not available today, so I planned to make this a practice day. Tops on my list of things to work on were spins and slip transitions. I was hoping for good thermalling conditions so I could regain the lift that I planned to lose. If not, I'd do a couple of high tows to get in some good practice. The weather forecasts I use did not agree, and it looked to me like it would be stable with little hope for soaring high. All I could plan on was that it would be HOT. By 10:45 it was already 101F. With few people at the field, I decided to take a flight fairly early and then another one after a lunch break. So I launched with a wing-down takeoff at 12:15 when the dust devils started popping.

I've had spin training with two different instructors (blogged here and here), and I have done a few solo spins in the PW5, but have not done solo spins in the Blanik. Looking back at my blog entries, I said my spins with instructors were not really scary, but that's because the instructor was always there. Before (and between) my first solo spins in the PW5, I was really nervous. But on this flight I really didn't think too much about it. After getting off tow (which included boxing the wake) at 4000' AGL, I cleared the area and went right into the spins, not wanting to waste any altitude.
  1. The first spin entry was amazingly easy and gentle. Not much sensation of the nose dropping, it just felt like turning left and turning down at the same time. Getting established in the spin was easy. I just remember thinking "hold it in... hold it in...". Watching the ground go around seemed perfectly natural, and it was even easy to count my turns. I felt no inclination to get out of the spin, as I had felt with my first solo spins. After a turn and a half, I recovered from the spin with the usual sequence of control inputs, and pulled out nice and smoothly. I remember thinking "Wow - that was really easy." Period - not exclamation point. It was just... easy and natural.

  2. For the second one, I had to cruise a little to get out from over a hill (I'd rather have all the absolute altitude I can get.) Again, the spin entry was really gentle. I counted one and three quarter turns and then recovered. This time I think I waited a bit too long before pulling out of the resulting dive, and I remember seeing 100 knots as I pulled out, which I think was too high, and I felt more G force than before. But again, it was not scary at all, it was - dare I say it? Fun! I think it was on this spin that I looked at the altitude loss, and it was about 300 feet. I remember thinking, "I can now see how people can say they enjoy spins." Before today, I could not say that.

  3. I had enough altitude to do one more. This one went just like the others, easy in and easy out. I remember that it seemed that the speed of the spin varied a little bit, and it seemed to smooth out when I ensured that the rudder was all the way to the stop - maybe I was letting it up a little? This time when I looked at the airspeed after recovering, I was going 70 knots which I thought was much better. I checked the manual just now, and it says the spin recovery speed is 87 knots, so maybe I looked at it after climbing a bit.
What a better experience than my first solo spins back in April! I remember some time ago seeing a book titled "At Home in the Sky". That's become one of my goals: to be at home in the sky, to be totally comfortable with whatever maneuvers I need to do. I think my experience today was a major step toward that goal.

I found no lift, but I had enough altitude left to practice switching from a left forward slip to a right one. This kind of transition may be needed when turning from the downwind leg to the base leg to the final approach, depending on the wind conditions, and I needed the practice. In today's pattern, the wind was from the southwest (across an east-west runway), so I needed right forward slip downwind and on base, and then left slip on final. I worked on keeping my ground track straight and doing a smooth slipping turn to base leg. By the end of the base leg, I had lost enough altitude that I needed to get out of it before turning final and establishing the left slip... I know my instructor had wanted to see a smooth transition from one direction to the other, but if I had done that I would have been too low.

It was so blasted hot that I decided not to fly again in the afternoon. It had been 108F when I took off, and up at 4000' AGL it was probably still 90. The highest temperature reported by AWOS was 111.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Training in the Heat

It was 105F in the shade today. Unfortunately, many of the activities of soaring do not occur in the shade: assembling gliders (we put the PW5 back together), washing & inspecting, pushing out to the line, and back from the landing zone. "But it's a dry heat!" Actually, that's true, and after doing this for 6 years, I'm pretty well acclimated to it, up to about 110F. Unlike some very hot days, the atmosphere was somewhat unstable and the lift was working. Several students had some pretty long rides, and even though I launched at 4:15 pm, we found strong stuff to work, but only up to 5500' MSL where the inversion seemd to top out.

I had a single 45-minute training flight with the instructor I've been working with to prepare for my Commercial rating. Quite a bit to do on these flights: box the wake, slack line correction, steer the towplane, multiple stalls, multiple incipient stalls, slow-flight turns, steep turns, thermalling. Fortunately we found lift to recover the altitude we lost with stalls. Flying the pattern with no flaps or spoilers, which means slipping the entire pattern in order to get down, and only using spoilers in the last 100' above the ground. I got a lot of pointers and will need to work on my accuracy with some of these during my solo flights. Plus I need to do more spins, up to 1 and a half turns.

And now I have a deadline! We just found out that our gliderport is closing on October 1. The county (or the airport) wants to close the glider runway as of that date. The owner of the glider operation is the local FAA "designated pilot examiner" and I've been planning to take my tests with him. Trying to take my tests anywhere else (Warner Springs, Crystal, Tehachapi, or wherever else there's a DPE) would be a logistical nightmare! So after consulting with my instructor, we decided that I will try to complete both the Commercial and Instructor ratings before he leaves. I had been planning to do the Commercial by about that date, and figured the Instructor would take quite a bit more training, but we think (hope) I can get this done. Many of the requirements are very similar, so lots of people do both very close together. I have about half of my specific "preparation" flights logged, but of course those are just minimum requirements: I need to do as many as it takes to show my instructor that I'm ready. It'll take some coordination, especially since I have a two-week trip planned in the middle of all this. I'll keep this blog updated as I go along. If any readers are CFIs, I'd welcome comments about how you went about your Commercial and Instructor ratings.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Short Dual Flight at Tehachapi

Friday's weather was terrific for soaring. Saturday's was significantly drier - no CU at all but still decent lift in the valley. Some pilots got 2.5 to 3.5 hour flights - I didn't fly, just helped launch and gave a briefing to a pilot G who was new to the PW5.

Sunday was also dry but was even weaker... very few flights. But G was able to stay up for a while in the PW5, so C and I decided to give it a try in the Grob 103, knowing it would not be great. But I had a couple of things I wanted to work on. My last approach and landing at this airport (back in May) was not so hot, so I wanted to give it a shot from the front seat where the forward view is better.

C did the takeoff, tow, and the first half of the flight. As expected, we only found about 1-2 knots of lift in a narrow band. It may have been a weak shear line, but the wind was only 8 knots at 8,000' MSL, and I'm not sure that's enough for a shear.

I took over after a while and went looking for thermal lift. I did find a bit, but again only 1-2 knots for a very short time. I was wishing for flaps like we have on the Blaniks. (If you pull Fowler flaps halfway out, you can get increased wing surface area without much drag, and sometimes that makes all the difference in weak lift.) Pretty soon we were back to the airport and down to pattern altitude. Too bad - it was a nice clear day and I would have liked to fly for more than 35 minutes.

I'd had time to analyze why my last landing in May was so ugly, and made a number of corrections. My pattern planning and my approach glideslope were much smoother than last time, and my speed was right where it needed to be (we only had 8 knots of wind, straight down the runway). Final approach was straight and level, flare was at the right height, touchdown was not rushed and so it was very gentle, and the rollout was perfect. It made me feel much better about landing the Grob at this site.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Things Flying Fast and Low - Some Good, Some Bad

The Good

Sitting under the trees at the Mountain Valley Gliderport, I heard a "whoosh!" and quickly looked left. A small, fast-moving blur just a few feet to my left. Faster than any radio control plane I've ever seen. It zig-zags between some of the trees, and I catch a glimpse of a darkish bird with pointed wings. It must be a peregrine falcon! It's banking and swooping like a TIE fighter in Star Wars, probably after some of the blackbirds and larks that are flying around. In less than 2 seconds it's past the other end of the glider parking area, about 300 feet away, and then gone. I do the math... it was flying at 80 to 100 MPH at 3 feet off the ground. Amazing!

The Bad

Our morning pilots' meeting is interrupted a few times by the roar of small jets... and by pilots getting up to go watch them. It's a flight of three L-29 trainers, the kind that are often privately owned. We assume they're in town for an Independence Day exhibition, though there's no real "air show" listed in the local paper. They fly around the valley a few times, sometimes in a delta formation and other times following each other. Though we're glider pilots, we still love fast and noisy things flying low!

Later that day, we see them take off again, one after another, from the municipal airport a few miles away. They make a turn around the valley and form up again, no more than 2000' above the ground. We see a tow plane and glider at a higher altitude than the jets, but not really close to them. We hear some chatter on the radio but don't know that it's the jet pilots. I look away to watch a glider coming in for a landing. Among the chatter on the radio we hear "Abort" a couple of times, and wonder if it has something to do with the glider that's landing. When I look back west, there's a dense cloud of black smoke just over a ridge, just a couple miles away. Smoke appearing that fast can only mean one thing, and it's not good. The smoke rises and dissipates quickly... this is no brush fire. We see no parachutes. On the radio we hear pilots talking about looking for "number three", going around the valley again, and eventually going back to land. Then nothing more.

Later in the day, the news comes in. The jet crashed on a road just south of town, fortunately missing houses. There are no survivors. The pilot was the Tehachapi Municipal Airport manager; the passenger is not identified. One of the glider pilots/tow pilots here knows the guys that fly the jets.

Glider pilots who were in the air at the time later relate that they saw the jets and later the smoke, but had no way of knowing they were related. Some of our wives were out for the day, touring the valley and visiting produce farms. We learn that they were on that road about 15 minutes before the crash.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Tehachapi Valley

Our club is flying at Tehachapi (Mountain Valley Airport) this weekend. We have the PW5 and the Grob 103. There are only a few club members here, so long flights are possible. For several reasons, I did not plan to do any true cross-country soaring, so I juat flew over the valley and the immediately surrounding mountains.

It turned out to be a great day for thermal soaring! Lots of cumulus clouds to mark lift, but not enough to block the sun; no overdevelopment, and not much wind. I let off at 3000' AGL (7200' MSL) and hooked a good thermal right away. Although there was plenty of lift to be had, there were still several challenges. Some CU that looked to be developing (e.g. concave bottoms) never panned out. Some were ragged and I think indicated rotor rather than lift, though the wind was only about 15 knots. There were some VERY rough areas near the Tehachapi Mtns. I found quite a number of thermals both under CU and in the blue, commonly getting up to 12,500' MSL or so. The highest was 13,300', for a maximum gain of 6,100'. I found lift of up to 700 ft/min sustained, and it got really strong just under the cloud bases. I also found some serious sink (900 ft/minute for 2-3 minutes). And sometimes entering thermals I hit the biggest bumps I've ever encountered - knocking me way up out of my seat although my belts were as tight as possible.

I went as far west as the Tehachapi Loop (a somewhat famous railroad circle), as far east as the end of the valley, and as far south as the top of the Tehachapi Mts. Since I wasn't planning to go anywhere far, I used the opportunity to explore and compare SeeYou Mobile with the Borgelt B50 Super Vario that's installed in the ship. For the first half of the flight, the audio Speed To Fly correlated very well with the STF on SeeYou: when I sped up to the SeeYou STF, the Borgelt "faster" tone shut up. (That is, after I set he correct polar: SeeYou was still set to a Grob 130. Oops.) But after an hour or so, the B50 was always saying "faster" no matter what the lift was doing. This was really annoying, so eventually I quit using "cruise" mode and stayed in "climb" mode while flying straight. This made the display a simple vario, which was fine, but gave no STF audio. I've looked at the B50 manual to see if I was doing something wrong, and I can't find anything. I can only conclude that it was a malfunction, and will watch for it to happen again. I have suspected for some time that the vertical gauge that is supposed to show STF was not working, but assumed it was just the meter. Now I'm thinking that maybe it's the computer. If it happens again I'll power-cycle it to see if it resets.

I also used another feature of SeeYou Mobile. The Thermal Assistant gives a visual indication of where in your circle the best lift was found. It also gives an audible tone a couple of seconds BEFORE you get back to a good spot, and it seemed to be really accurate. This is another great feature for helping you keep your eyes outside the cockpit instead of looking down at the display. I wasn't aware of it until I prepared for the class I recently taught... I found it to be helpful.

I thermalled for a while with a 1-26, which was a little tricky because our speeds and glide ratios were different. We "poached" off of each other for quite a while.

The lift today was so strong I had to use spoilers to force the glider down to pattern altitude. I could have stayed up for a lot longer but decided to come down after 2 hours and 40 minutes. It would have been a great day to try for my 5-hour Silver Duration flight, but alas the Volkslogger did not come along on this trip... and it's a real pain to document a duration flight without it.

Tomorrow is not forecast to be as strong, but still probably a good soaring day. I'm trying out a new online soaring forecast site called XC Skies. So far I like it a lot! It pretty well nailed today's weather at this location. I'll have to see how well tomorrow matches its predicton, and try it out for my home field at Hemet.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Above & Below the Clouds

On Saturday I shared a flight in a Blanik L13 with another pilot. The weather was much worse than expected... nearly overcast until about 2:00. When it finally broke up there were still some little cumulus clouds that looked like they could be useful, but not very high - ceiling had been reported to be 1900' AGL. I planned to practice incipient stalls, so we took a tow up to about 4000' AGL to buy some time. He flew the tow then handed it over to me. As we climbed, we passed those CU's with cloudbases about 2200' AGL, so we knew that was as high as we would ever get back up. But from 4000' we had a nice view of the tops of the retreating overcast to the south. We rarely get to see the tops of the clouds on glider flights.

I did some straight and turning stalls, some incipient stalls during slow, shallow turns, then when we got below cloudbase I gave the glider back to him. Although there were a few little CU right around us, they were pretty ragged by the time we got there - already dissipating. He and I took turns trying to work the weak lift we found - no more than about 150 feet/minute in places.

Pretty soon we were back down to the pattern altitude. Since I'm working on my no-flaps approaches and my precision landings, we had arranged that he would do the tow and I the landing. Although I made a couple of mistakes in the downwind leg, my speed control and glide slope were good in the base and final. With about a 14-knot headwind, my landing and rollout within the first target box were really good. I continued to fly the wings level whole he opened the canopy and got out of the glider... finally setting the wing down to push back. Our total flight time was 27 minutes. Pretty short, but not bad considering the altitude I lost doing four stalls.

Later in the day the club operation switched to winch launching:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Class on PDA, SeeYou Mobile, and Volkslogger

Because I've been using soaring software in the club ships for a while, some folks in the club asked me to run a little class to help them get started. Now, I'm not an expert, but I have worked out how to use SeeYou Mobile on a Pocket PC, and to use it either with or without the Volkslogger (a secure flight logging device that the club owns). So I agreed to do it. And as usually happens when I prepare to teach something, I learned a few things, too! I see I have written a bit about the topic a few times, but not a comprehensive article about my hardware and software setup, so maybe I'll blog on that soon. It's not hard but not exactly simple... you need to understand the wiring, the options around where the GPS information can come from, and where and how it's recorded.

The main topics were:
  • Brief intro to the PDA
  • How to use most of the features of SeeYou Mobile
  • How to upload a task declaration to the Volkslogger with ConnectMe
  • How to download flight traces from the VL
I found a cool way to conduct most of the software part of the class. Naviter offers a PDA/SeeYou simulator program that runs on a PC. So I put that on a laptop, hooked up an external monitor so more people could see it, and zoomed up the screen resolution to make the PDA image bigger. This way up to about 8 people could look on, much more than would be able to see the tiny screen of a real PDA. As it turned out, we had four people plus myself, so it worked out great.

I loaded up a flight trace from the local Hemet area, which included some thermalling, and played back various parts at different speeds to demonstrate all the important features. I also prepared a four-page cheat sheet full of notes that they could take away with them as reminders (and which I used as an outline), and some diagrams showing the flow of information between the various hardware and software parts.

I felt it was important to demonstrate nearly all the screen features, navigational indications, and the main ways to customize the display. It's very important to spend some "quality time" to become very familiar with the device and the software on the ground so you're not trying to learn and/or configure it while you're flying. You don't want it to be a major distraction that pulls your head down into the cockpit too much... you still have to fly the glider, after all. Hopefully this gets them off to a good start and can save them a few hours of figuring out what's where.

The classroom part took about two hours, and then we also spent maybe 20 minutes actually hooking everything up in a glider and demonstrating downloading a flight trace. That part went OK but because of the sun glare, no one but me could really see the program on the PDA.

Most of the participants were flight instructors who, although they've flown huge numbers of hours, and may have used GPS's in other situations, have never delved into soaring-specific software. Everyone seemed pretty pleased with the class. Now that I have the materials, I could run it again when more pilots get ready to use such systems for cross-country soaring.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tehachapi Day 3

Monday started out a bit warmer and less breezy, but throughout the day the conditions were about the same as Sunday. The few thermals were narrow and hard to center. The shear line was working, but not everyone could exploit it enough to get very far from the airport.

In the morning we worked on removing the faulty radio from the front cockpit. Then I flew the Grob with one of our instructors. While I flew, he wanted to try out my PDA-GPS combo. Unfortunately it had some sort of interface problem, and the PDA could not get the GPS data for most of the flight, so that was a bust. (It worked fine on the ground afterward.) Much like Sunday's flight, although there was lift I was not able to work it very well, and was back on the ground in just 16 minutes. Back on the ground hard - I bounced that landing pretty badly (unlike my other flights). I think it has to do with the sight picture from the rear seat of the Grob... it's kind of hard to tell exactly how close you are. Plus I had too much speed after my flare. Something to work on.

Later in the day the same two of us went up again, and he did twice as well as I had done... which is to say, we were down in a little more than a half hour! Narrow, rough lift... circling right on the edge of the stall, with lots of variation in speed trying to work the weak thermals. We tried to head up the valley to work the shear, but couldn't quite find it. For only the second time since I've started flying, I felt like I might get a little airsick. When I'm doing the flying, my visual and balance senses are much more in tune and it's never been a problem even with stalls and spins and hours of circling. But twice when I've been a passenger, it's gotten to me a bit. Hmm... both times with instructors, never with another private pilot. ;-) By consciously keeping my focus out of the cockpit, and trying to get some cool air, I got over it. (It did not help that my radio battery died and I had to look down for a some time while switching to a spare pack.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tehachapi Day 2

Sunday started with an extensive discussion in the "map room" to help the newer pilots get oriented and learn how they would fly northard over the Sierras. The floor-to-ceiling relief map is a terrific tool for this kind of training! Unfortunately, the weather was not expected to be adequate for any XC flights today, the same as Saturday.

It actually was cooler and windier. Everyone who went up early agreed that the lift was not working in the mountains but found shear line lift in the valley, but only up to 7200' MSL. Winds were about 15 knots but pretty straight down the runway.

About 3:30 I took a friend of a student pilot up for a flight. It wasn't his first glider flight; he'd been up one other time. Very bumpy on tow, but my passenger didn't mind. We got off tow at about 2200' AGL (6400 MSL) into lift and got up about 7200' right away. We flew around for a little while with a 1-26, but did not find much to keep us up. The wind was strong and took us down the valley very quickly. Pretty soon we were scratching around at pattern altitude and heading in.

The 1-26 was way below us... He must have been at 600 or 700 feet AGL when he entered the pattern, well below the usual 800 to 1000. Since he was ahead of us, I made an early decision to use the power runway since I didn't know if he would clear the glider runway. I'm glad I did, because there would not have been room.

Wind on final approach was pretty fierce but fortunately not crossways, and I made a good landing well into the runway. I was able to taxi all the way to the taxiway closest to our tiedown area.

I was surprised to find that the total flight time was only 15 minutes... It felt like we soared longer than that. But with only a 2200 foot tow with a pretty quick climb rate, and a fast downwind in the pattern, I guess that adds up. Better luck tomorrow, I hope.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tehachapi Day 1

I've had some busy weeks with business trips and my daughter's wedding so I haven't flown or blogged for a while. This weekend our clup is on a trip to Tehachapi, one of our favorite soaring locations. They brought the Grob 103 and a Blanik L13, and we have about 13 or so club members (several with their own ships).

Today was nice, a bit windy, which caused some pilots some trouble on takeoffs. Some people got thermals to 11,000' right off tow. I went up in the Grob with a student pilot. I did all the flying, he shot some video. We let off tow at about 8,400' and soon found a thermal up to 9,350' over the foothills. We went back to the higher hills and could not connect with any more thermals. But we did get quite a bit of what I think was anabatic lift: layers of heated air coming off the sides of the mountains and converging off the tops of the ridges. Because of the direction of the wind, and where we found downdrafts, I'm pretty sure it was not the orographic kind that people usually call "ridge lift". Anabatic is only found right above the "spine" and peak of a slope, and it's not wide enough to circle in. When you're in it, it feels kind of magic: you're heading right toward the mountain, and the mountain is lifting you up as you go! The highest we got in this kind of lift was about 8,500'.

When that started to dwindle, we headed out over the valley but did not find much. We ended up with a 45 minute flight. Wind during the landing was pretty stiff, 15 to 20 knots, but straight up the runway.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lift Under Overcast

The day did not live up to the forecast. The day after a minor cold front went through... cold temperatures aloft... forecast for a high in the low 60's but with only 35-45% cloud cover. Depending on which sounding you believe, the lift could go to 7,000' or 9,000' MSL. Unfortunately it was 100% cloud cover until about noon. It cleared over the valley for maybe an hour, but was still 85% cloudy. It was fairly warm in the areas where the sun hit (well, it helped that I was wearing a black coat).

I was planning to just do a flight to practice some of the maneuvers for my Commercial practical test. I needed to work on some slips, especially switching from one side to the other. And I wanted to work on maintaining constant speed when using spoilers. Both of those use up altitude, so I was hoping for some sustaining lift. I found some weak lift up to 1-2 knots, generally just a few hundred feet below the darkest clouds. (Of course, I stayed 500 feet below them.) Having my clip-on audio vario was helpful. I never gained more than 200-300 feet at a time, but it was enough to extend my flight to 31 minutes from a 3000' tow, even with me doing some slips and spoiler tests. (You need to nose down just a bit when deploying the spoilers in the Blanik, or you lose a little airspeed. That's something my instructor wanted me to smooth out.) I think the valley floor was still radiating the heat that it absorbed during that hour or so of noontime sun.

One of the things I needed to practice was flying the whole pattern and landing with no drag devices. I made sure to get to the Initial Point with plenty of altitude. Then I hit a big distraction as I was trying to get lined up for my downwind leg. I found that I could not lock the retractable landing gear in the down position, because my water bottle in my cargo-pants pocket was in the way. I fooled around with it and had to actually move the stick way left to get my leg out of the way, and that messed up my speed and direction and attitude a bit.

The wind was from the right, but not directly, which meant that a right-wing-down slip would be used on the downwind and base legs. That went really well. Since I would need to reverse my slip on the final leg, I got out of the slip, did a coordinated turn to final, and then left-wing slipped on final. When I decided to come out of that one, I found that my speed was WAY up (the airspeed indicator is incorrect during slips), probably over 65 knots (should have been 55). I was down to a hundred feet or so, so I reduced my speed, used spoilers and landed right in the box. I think I bounced it a little, but stopped right in the first box as required for the Commercial test.

Other than the speed control on short final, not a bad little flight on a very gray day.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

100 Hours

I just updated my logbook spreadsheet, and noticed that my last flight took me to just over 100 hours.

That may not sound like a lot compared to what power pilots rack up. In gliding we do a lot of short flights. A half hour to an hour is typical for a gliding or soaring flight. The "pattern" flights during training, rope breaks (emergency landing practice) annual checkrides, etc. really bring down the average, and my occasional 2- to 3-hour cross-country flight does not offset them very much. I have a total of 227 flights, for an average of about 26 minutes each.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Bad Flight and a Good Flight

The forecast was for good lift to perhaps 8000', clear skies, and light winds. I planned to fly once or twice in the Blanik to work on the stuff I mentioned last week. After I spent an hour orienting another pilot on the PW5, it was early afternoon. Dust devils were popping off. Glass ships were staying up. Since I planned to do some extensive slips at altitude, I was glad to see that there was good lift so I wouldn't be down right away. Yeah, right.

I did a wing-down takeoff. I passed through some good lift at 3000' AGL and released, but could not connect with the thermal. I hunted all around but could only find light sink or zero sink. I could see several gliders about a thousand feet higher than me, but could never find an elevator to take me up. Pretty soon I was back at the Initial Point, without having practiced anything except some steep turns. I figured at least I could practice slipping the whole pattern (flying the whole approach without flaps or spoilers). Yeah, right.

I found nothing but sink all through the pattern. Not drastic, but definitely down. It was as if the glider was really dragging. No flaps, no spoilers, no slipping - flying as efficiently as I could. I couldn't abbreviate the downwind much because there was a towplane landing in front of me. By the time I was approaching the base turn, I was seriously low. I made an angled base leg that headed me right for the landing area, and came in lower than I ever have before. Safe, but barely, after 24 minutes.

A friend of a friend had come out for a first glider flight. Since he's already a Commercial power pilot, he was eager to do some thermaling, no qualms about lots of circling. We let off at 4,500 MSL in lift and this time got right in it. We easily got up to about 6,500 feet. We cruised around a bit and I let him fly straight and some easy turns. Later we found more thermals that took us up to 7,800'. He had a great time. The air was clear, the ground is still green, and the airfield and other areas are full of flowers. I had to force the glider down with spoilers and some fast turns to increase drag. This time we were in lift on the whole downwind leg (go figure!) so I at least got to practice a long slip. We came in for a very smooth landing, right within the first box, for a 1:06 total flight time. He was very happy to have had a good first glider flight, and I was glad that my whole day wasn't ruined by that first fiasco.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Commercial Practical test flights - whew!

Today I did four flights with instructor X to begin preparing for my Commercial Practical test: a low pattern flight (which was supposed to be a no-surprise rope break except X forgot), a rope break, a high tow, and higher-than-pattern tow. I thought I would be mostly working on showing X the sequence of maneuvers that I described here, but as it turns out, there's a lot more that I need to work on. Some of it was new, some I've done before but not a lot or not for a long time, and some was stuff that I need to do more precisely.

New stuff:
  1. Wing-down takeoffs. X says that I should be prepared to do all my test flights this way, because obviously a lot of paid rides are done that way. I've only done about three of those before - our club instructors weren't teaching them much when I started out. On my first two, my attitude control was not so good. The last two were fine.

  2. Incipient stalls. I've been practicing real stalls, and that's not what they want to see on this test. I need to call out the signs of a stall about to happen, and then prevent the stall.

  3. Full pattern with no drag devices. This was the big surprise. On the Private, they wanted to see slipping to a landing starting with the turn to the base leg, through about half of the final approach. That meant slip on base leg, turning slip to final, and slip on just the early part of final. For Commercial, they want to see no flaps or spoilers all the way from pattern entry. That means, if you enter the pattern at the normal height, slipping all the way down the downwind leg, and down to within 100' of the ground on final. I guess I've never tried to do a slip and maintain a ground track, so slipping all the way through the downwind leg was challenging. I was only using about half the aileron and rudder that I could have been, so X took over and demonstrated it on one flight, and then I did it on the next flight.

    One of the tricky parts is that the direction of the slip may change several times, depending on the wind direction. For example:

    • Wind is from from the left on downwind, so left-wing-down forward slip.
    • Then right-wing-down slip turning right to the base leg.
    • Then forward-slipping whichever direction makes sense on base.
    • Then right-wing-down slip turning right to final.
    • Then right-wing-down slip on final (since direction of the wind has reversed from the downwind leg).

    I screwed that up in a couple of places, because entering a slip has never been natural for me... I always have to think which direction for stick and which for rudder. Switching several times in a row was tough. So now that I know, I'll need to practice this!

  4. Slack line removal - revised! X got a bunch of slack in the towline and handed it over to me to resolve. I did it the way I was taught, and X did not like it a bit. After the second attempt, we discussed it and I found out they've completely changed the way they teach it! I was taught to yaw away from the tow plane, then gently realign just before the slack comes out. I'm really smooth at that - except when an instructor interrupts me in the middle of the maneuver telling me I'm doing it all wrong. Nowadays they say to point the nose directly at the tow plane, and wait for the slack to come out. So... something else to go up and practice.
Stuff that went well:
  1. Accuracy landing
  2. Steep turns
At the outset, X said "I'm going to be nitpicking because that's what the examiner will be doing." I was a bit surprised at stuff I thought I was doing well that I need to clean up:
  1. Rope break. OK, but I should have sped up more before the turn. I was pretty high, and (as mentioned above), getting into a slip to lose height took me a couple of tries. After that, the landing was good.

  2. Boxing the wake. Need to use more rudder and less aileron. I haven't done this with an instructor for a long time, so I guess I've formed some bad habits.

  3. Airbrake check. I didn't pay attention to attitude/airspeed during the check, and got dinged for it. This is a smoothness/comfort thing.

  4. Slow flight including turns. My slow flight has always been fine. But X wanted to see my turns be much shallower than I was doing them.

  5. Entering turns. I sometimes turn first and then adjust my airspeed once the turn is established. I should plan ahead and adjust the speed as I start the turn. Another smoothness/comfort thing.
I knew the tolerances would be tighter, but really had not known there were so many areas where the expectations would be higher. It all makes sense, but it means I'll need to go up and practice all this stuff. And it meant I was working hard, because so little of it was "automatic".

After all that, I helped push planes in and out for others... lifted some Blanik wings onto a trailer... did some maintenance on the Blanik... and spent about an hour teaching a student about the PW5. By the time I left, I was pooped. That's partly 'cuz it was a hot day - 92F in the shade when I left at 4:00!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

FOI Test

One of the two "written" tests for Flight Instructor is the Fundamentals of Instruction. This covers a variety of topics regarding teaching in general (it does not cover aeronautics and the other content that one will actually teach). The FAA textbook that teaches this material is the Aviation Instructor's Handbook.

Topics covered include:

- teaching methods
- ground instruction lesson plans
- flight instruction (demonstration/performance etc.)
- how people learn
- basic psychology (needs hierarchy etc.)
- defense mechanisms
- critiques
- evaluations
- types of tests

I have found the material to be a little - I don't know - arbitrary? I mean it states some things as definite that I think are open to interpretation. There could be several ways of saying something, but the test questions use some very specific language that you just have to know and not argue with.

In addition to studying that book, I got the ASA Test Prep book and their Prepware software. Although the book contains the test questions and answers, I like to use the software because it makes the scoring much easier, and because it composes practice tests with random sets of questions.

ASA updates it each year to stay current with the FAA test questions. A couple weeks ago I learned that the FAA issued a new edition of the Aviation Instructor's Handbook late in 2008, so I quickly ordered a copy. The 2009 Prepware does not include any of the new material, so I asked ASA if the FAA test includes it, and they said it does not. 

Unlike the Private Pilot knowledge test, you don't need an instructor endorsement to go take the test. The test is 50 questions drawn from a pool of 190. Passing grade is 70%. In a study session covering all 190 questions, I got 91%. In practice tests of 50 questions, I got 98% and 96%.

Last week I found in my favorite used bookstore an old copy of The Flight Instructor's Manual from 1974. Perfect timing! As I mentioned, I found the AIH to be kind of artificial and not as useful as I'd like. And the ASA Test Prep for Flight Instructor is much like the one for Commercial Pilot: a lot on aeronautics and regulations but not much on HOW TO TEACH STUDENTS TO FLY. This FIM book seems to combine the two into a much more useful guide.

The more I read the FIH, the more I think that author, William Kershner, actually wrote much of the FAA's AIH. (The AIH does not credit any individuals.) The terms used are exactly the same, but the FIM goes into more depth and makes it all so much more practical. So far I'm just three chapters into it

Since ASA said the FAA 2009 test does not cover any of the new material, I went ahead and took the FOI test yesterday although I have not finished the 2008 AIH (scenario-based training etc.). Most of it went fine. I got stuck on 3 closely related questions on defense mechanisms. By comparing the questions and answers for all three, I chose what I thought were the best answers. I was either going to get them all right, or all wrong.

I got 100%.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ground School, and Grounded

Today our club started a 6-week ground school for club members and newcomers, and as a student CFI I got to teach a couple of sessions. Just like last year, I taught on Weight & Balance, and Preflight Inspection. I think it went pretty well, except that I really could have used more time. Each was planned to be 30 minutes, but we went for 1:20 and could have gone longer. There were nine "official" students and two or three that were kind of observing. I think everyone enjoyed it and learned a lot - good discussion and good questions. I got good feedback from a couple of participants and our Chief CFI.

I also worked with a pre-solo student on some of his homework questions regarding aerodynamics. Coincidentally, I had been thinking about his first question the other day, and how I would explain it. Grabbing a little balsa glider that we keep around as an instructional aid, I gave him some hints that helped a light bulb go on over his head. I really enjoy that kind of stuff.

Later in the day I was to fly with our Chief CFI to do some prep work for my Commercial practical test. You have to do 10 flights with an instructor within 60 days of taking the practical test, and this was to have been the first. As I was strapping in in the rear seat, I found a major mechanical problem which, upon further inspection, showed damage to the static system. So that ship is grounded for now, until some prehistoric tubing can be replaced. I worked closely with our Maintenance Officer, so I learned a bit more about how the Blanik L13 instrument panel and static system are put together.

Since the above-mentioned CFI is going on some trips in March, I won't get to do many of those required flights for a while. So I'm probably looking at taking the practical in late April. I think I may focus heavily on preparing for the Fudamentals of Instruction written test in the meantime so I can keep making progress. I plan to buy the ASA Test Prep CD for Flight Instructor. I have the book from a couple years ago, and I like studying from the book rather than on the computer. But I found that the software version helps a lot when taking practice tests, because it handles the scoring automatically.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Work day and a practice flight

The forecast was for broken cirrus clouds and little lift. Actually it was unbroken thick cirrus, so there was no lift to be had. That was fine with me, my plan was to do a high tow and practice maneuvers for my commercial practical test. I need to log 10 solo flights specifically in preparation for the test, and I have 4 logged so far.

Few people were flying, because it was an unofficial club "work day", with projects involving deck roof repair, trailer repair, radio installation, and general trash cleanup around our operating area. Also, the club is beginning a "Duty Officer" function to schedule student flights and help make the instructors' job easier and more efficient. I helped design the role, and volunteered to be DO on the first day. So I didn't work on any of the big projects, but I did some general trash pickup and a lot of glider pushing.

I took a Blanik up on a high tow in the mid-afternoon, to run through the practical test steps. Here's an abbreviated list of what is generally done on a practical test (from a 4000' tow) to demonstrate all the required tasks:

  • Box the wake
  • Slack line control
  • Signal tow plane for turn
  • 360 degree turn to heading
  • 720 degree turn to heading,clearing turn
  • Straight stall w/o brakes
  • Straight stall with brakes
  • Turning stall w/o brakes
  • Turning stall with brakes
  • Slow flight
  • Slow turns, right & left
  • Straight flight @ min sink
  • Straight flight @ best L/D
  • Speed to fly in sink
  • Thermal soaring if possible
  • Pattern, including all radio calls
  • Land & stop in the designated box
All the airwork went fine, and I was surprised to find that I only used up 1,000' doing all the turns and four stalls. I worked on making my turns steeper. I found a little zero sink but no workable lift, so my flight was 24 minutes long.

Before my flight, the previous student and instructor noted a significant loss of wheel braking power. We could see that the brake actuator was not moving quite the way it should. I decided that it would be OK to fly, but to plan on landing as short as possible to leave a lot of stopping space. As it turned out, the brake was totally inoperable. With my airbrakes fully out, and no wheel braking, I used up the entire landing zone and then some, stopping about halfway between the zone and the taxiway (which is our don't-go-there limit because of the hump it presents). But I was expecting it, so since there were no other gliders in the landing zone it was not really a problem. So much for landing within the tolerance of the commercial test!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

BFR via Winch Launch

It's biennial Flight Review time! I tried to arrange to do it in January but due to a last-minute mixup with an instructor, it didn't work out. Then last week was almost winch launching and weird scheduling... The requirement for the Flight Review is either an hour of flight time or three launches to pattern altitude. So we decided that three winch launches would do the trick! Since I was last up last week and didn't get to launch, the group let me go first today and graciously let me get in three flights. (After that I did "Line Boss" again for everyone else's flights.)

Flight 1: I'd forgotten just how fast the winch accelerates the glider. Zero to about 55 mph in about 3 seconds. That really gets your attention! Nice, smooth rotation into the 45-degree climb. It took me a little while to get the hang of the speed adjustment, but once I got in the groove it was very stable at 50 knots indicated airspeed (on my front indicator, 55 knots on the back one). The cable back-released at 1,000' AGL.

Flight 2: The startup acceleration didn't catch me by surprise this time. Another smooth climb to 1,000' AGL. I didn't time it, but it really only takes about 30 seconds at that speed and angle. I tell people that have been to Disney's California Adventure that it's much like the California Screamin' roller coaster, with its quick acceleration into a 45-degree climb - but 10 times as high! There was absolutely no wind, or we probably would have gone higher faster.

Flight 3: This time I could really detect the round-over at the top of the climb and released at 1,100' AGL. That was high enough to do a few turns before entering the pattern for landing (since the instructor wants to see more than just up-and-down). No lift of course; these flights were from about 8:20 to 9:00 a.m.

My instructor was well pleased with my launches, flights, and landings, so that took care of my BFR flights and the club's annual checkride requirement. And at $15 per launch, this was much less expensive than three aerotows! Our club pres was rather pleased that we're already demonstrating the value of winch launching.

We spent some ground time later on going over my missed questions from Friday's Commercial written test. That, along with some reading and q-and-a, covered the ground training requirement for the BFR.

I spent much of the rest of the day pushing gliders in and out, and wing running for club members and other pilots. It turned out to be a quite soarable day, with the temperature up in the low 80's.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Commercial Pilot Knowledge Test

We all call it the "written" test 'cuz it's not the oral or flight test. It's actually a computer-delivered test with 100 multiple-choice questions, up to 3 hours allowed. Minimum passing grade is 70%. (Now THAT's a scary thought...)

Unfortunately it includes some subject areas that really don't apply to glider pilots, so I've spent a lot of time studying and practice-testing those areas. It's hard to learn those areas because they're all abstract knowledge to me. Things like radio navigation with VOR's and NDB's - I've never seen either one, so I have no real-world experience to confirm what I read about. Things like Class B and Class C airspace - I don't and won't fly there, so that stuff just doesn't stick. No way I'm going to get 100%. I figure if I'm really solid on all the glider stuff and the stuff that applies, then missing a few questions on those topics will only pull my grade down a little. The best I did on the ASA computerized practice test was 97%.

I passed with a 95% score. As I recall, when I took my Private Pilot written, I got 93%.

The test report doesn't tell you exactly which questions you missed, but gives some "Learning Statement Codes" which point you to general areas of knowledge. You have to get further instructional time on the areas missed. Amazingly, I didn't miss any of the VOR stuff! What I did miss were:
  • Airspace classes and info on a sectional chart. I remember being unsure about some Class E ceiling and boundary questions.
  • Airport signs and taxiiing techniques. Yeah... in six years, I've never taxied an aircraft at an airport that had signs, so I'm not surprised I'd miss a question on "destination signs".
  • PIC authority and responsibility. Not sure what that was... I'll have to look into that.
That means I got 100% on all the glider, weather, instrument and aerodynamic questions.

So now it's time to focus on getting ready for the Practical Test!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Almost Winched, and a Little Soaring

Our club is beginning winch operations at our home airport, and this was week 2 of a 6-week startup and training program. The plan was to winch launch from 8 am until 11 am, before the commercial operation planned to start aerotowing. In the future we might be able to mix the two operations, but as we're starting up we need to stay well out of each other's way. I went to help out, and because I was hoping to do a soaring flight later in the day.

I did the job of "Line Boss" for a few launches, which involves coordinating the actions of the winch driver, wing runner, and pilot by radio. I've done this before at other club ground launch sites. I wasn't really planning to winch launch today, but a slot came open and I was up next. (I've winch launched a few times before, actually have an endorsement for it, but it's been a while and I planned to do it again with an instructor.) But the commercial op asked us to stand down from 10 to 11 so they could do a few aerotows for the other club. And the other club guys pushed out at 9:58 just as I was ready to go. Argh. We backed off and let them go, and for various reasons that was the end of our winching for the day.

I was able to squeeze in an aerotow flight in the Blanik between a couple of student sessions (most of the other members had left). The weather was very cloudy, after a mild rainstorm yesterday, but the forecast and conditions indicated there might be some lift. (Frequently on a "post-frontal" day the air is unstable and good for soaring.) If trigger temperature was reached, the lift could be 3 to 4 knots. Unfortunately the clouds covered about 80% or more of the sky, blocking solar heating. There was a fairly strong southwest wind, 11 to 17 knots at times, which some said would destroy the thermals. Well, yes, it can destroy the thermals, but it can also cause orographic lift even away from obvious ridges. Fortunately I had been watching the sky carefully all day and it appeared to me that some areas in and near a "blue hole" were generating some lift, and I wanted to check it out. (I really like to fly, even if it's a short flight.)

Of course, some big cumulus clouds are obviously directly caused by upslope winds over big mountains. And isolated puffy CU on a warm day can be obviously related to identifiable thermals. Smaller, near-overcast CU over a valley or area of hills can appear to be just floating by. But that's because the cloud motion and development happens on such a slow timescale that we humans don't easily see the patterns. If you watch some time-lapse movies of clouds, you can see that they are often developing in a fairly constant place, and then dissipating downwind and higher up. Not necessarily a predictable place, but often a noticeable place. You have to watch the sky for a while to see that happening in real time. In this photo, those cauliflower-shaped clouds on the other side of the lake were always in the same place even though it was windy, indicating a fairly steady-state flow in what looks like a random pattern of clouds. It seemed to me that the "blue hole" (to the right of this view) was in a fairly constant place, and the little clouds in and around it were stable and some had concave bases, indicating strong lift.

So up I went. I asked the tow pilot to take me up near cloudbase in that specific area. As we approached that zone, we went through some areas of lift. I released at 2100' AGL near a decent cloud. AWOS was reporting the ceiling at 2400', but I think it was higher. I found some pockets of fairly constant lift of 300 knots (correction: 300 feet per minute), with some short bursts of 6! The lift was small, too small to actually center. It was stronger under some of the big gray areas, but those clouds were fuzzy enough on the bottom that I didn't want to get too close. I never did get above release altitude (duh - there were clouds above me!) but I did play around with the lift for a little while. I also took some pictures, which probably contributed to my not staying in the lift very well. That was OK, because I knew there was a student waiting for me to come down. So I got an 18-minute flight. From a 2100' foot tow, a no-lift ride would be about 9 minutes.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Big planes and little planes

Saturday there were Santa Ana winds all over the area. Fortunately, Hemet-Ryan airport is in a protected valley and the winds were light but variable. Weather charts predicted up to 40 knots at higher altitudes. J and I had arranged to fly dual in the Grob 103 even if it meant just doing some sled rides. Because I had to leave by 1:00, we knew we'd be going up before the thermals (if any) started cooking. J wanted to do the takeoffs and landings for currency purposes, which was fine with me. I flew from the back seat.

The first flight was pretty turbulent down low, smoother above 1000' AGL. The tow pilot took us further west than I thought made sense, given the east wind. We headed upwind to get to some low hills that we thought might have some thermals. At one point I looked down at the ground while I was flying at 45 knots, about minimum sink speed, and we were barely moving forward. Have you ever looked up at a bird that was just stationary flying into the wind? Yeah, that was us! The head wind was probably 35 knots or so. So we put the nose down to pick up speed and went off in search of lift. We didn't find much, and we were back down in 15 minutes. But I did get some practice tracking a heading with a strong crosswind.

On the second flight, we were just about 100' off the ground when we nearly passed under a hawk. Then BAM! we flew through a strong bit of turbulence, enough to bang my head on the canopy. I told J we should remember that spot in case we didn't find any other thermals. This time we steered the towplane northward so we would be flying downwind as we looked for lift. (Before takeoff, we had noticed a low-level wind from the south, so with that colliding with the Santa Ana from the northeast, we thought we might find a convergence to surf.) There were just little bumps, not enough to soar on, until we got back over the end of the runway where that big bump had been. Sure enough, we found enough "zero sink" to stretch out our flight for about 7 minutes, and ended up with a 22-minute flight.

So, not great flights, but it was fun to be up in the clear air and fly over the valley for a while.

The reason I needed to leave at 1:00 was to go work the SSA-OCSA booth at the Academy of Model Aeronautics annual convention in Ontario. We bring a glider (and this time our winch) to advertise "full-scale" soaring to the radio control pilots. Many of us glider guiders got our start in R/C, and it's a good source of new members - and a good next step for model pilots to think about. (I resisted the urge to stimulate the economy and buy another project... gotta focus on my Commercial for now!) It's a lot of fun talking with people and answering their questions about soaring and sailplanes.