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%.