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.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's Resolution

I'm setting a goal of taking my Commercial written test by the end of January.

Review of 2008

It's been a busy year. I accomplished some things I set out to do, made progress on others. Looking back at my log and blog, here are the highlights.

I had a total of 29 flights, including my 200th:
  • One flight with an instructor
  • Two flights with other Private pilots
  • Six flights with student pilots
  • One passenger flight
  • That leaves 19 solo flights, two of them cross-country.
I worked toward my Commercial and Instructor ratings. At the start of the year, I thought I would have taken at least the Commercial tests by now, but it has taken longer than I thought. I thought the material was similar enough that I would take both tests in close succession, but now I see that there is a lot more prep work to do for Instructor, so I'm focusing on Commercial.
  • In January-February, I attended a Commercial and Instructor ground school series run by the club.
  • Bought the ASA Commercial and Instructor test prep manuals and have worked with them quite a lot.
  • Bought the ASA Commercial test CD to make my self-scoring easier. On practice tests a couple of months ago, I scored 85% and 86%. I'd like to be at 95% before taking it for real.
  • Bought the BGA Gliding Theory of Flight manual, which is very helpful and interesting... I've read it 1.5 times. I'll need much of it for the Instructor work.
  • In Feb, I did some student teaching as part of our club's ground school. This required writing two lesson plans. I learned a *lot* about weight-and-balance calculations.
  • Downloaded many FAA Advisory Circulars to study
  • I've done a few flights with students, to get used to turning over the controls, observing, providing feedback... no teaching.
I kind of took the summer off from the Com/Instr track to do some cross-country work:
  • I did an out-and-back flight of about 41 miles (each way) out of Tehachapi which probably qualified for Silver badge distance and altitude.
  • I did a straight-out flight in the Dust Devil Dash from Tehachapi, landing safely on a dirt strip at Olancha about 84 miles away. This one was properly declared and logged, and was accepted by SSA for Silver distance and altitude. Placed 20th out of 22.
Other stuff:
  • Performed my first-ever solo spins
  • Got a good look at a the structure of a disassembled Blanik, did some reading to understand how those flimsy aluminum parts form a strong fuselage
  • Uploaded some flights to the On Line Contest for the first time
  • Built a PC with the Condor soaring simulator, joystick and pedals, for the club to use in ground instruction
  • Took first place in the club's Timed Flight event of our Family Soaring Contest (Um... not sure if anyone else entered... but it *was* within seconds of the 60-minute goal.)
  • First flight in "wave" lift (though at a very low altitude)
  • Had some good practice "porpoise" flying under cloud streets - pretty rare in our area
  • Wrote a letter of recommendation to the FAA which helped one of our flight instructors receive the Wright Brothers award for 50 years of safe flying.
  • Produced the club's "year in pictures" DVD.
All in all, I had a lot of good flights at Hemet and Techachapi. Whether due to better luck with the weather, or improving soaring skill on my part, I felt I did not get "skunked" nearly as often this year.