Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review of 2010

2010 had its ups and downs. I completed my Silver badge, but we saw our training fleet grounded and our club struggled to find a new operating model. Here are some highlights.

I had a total of 28 flights, 5 fewer than in 2009, but 17 hours, 4 more than in 2009:
  • Nine flights with instructors
  • Seven flights with other Private pilots
  • No flights with student pilots
  • Two passenger flights
  • That leaves 10 solo flights
  • No cross-country flights
  • Four winch launches
I got around some:
  • Four flights at 29 Palms
  • Ten flights at Crystalaire
  • Six flights at Lake Elsinore
  • Eight flights at Tehachapi
I worked toward my Commercial and Instructor ratings early and late in the year:
  • Two flights at Lake Elsinore in the Blanik L13
  • Seven flights at Crystalaire in the Grob 103
Along the way, I did have a major accomplishment and some fun flights:
  • I had my longest flight ever, 5 hours and 11 minutes, to complete my Silver badge. First time in my life I've had someone douse me with champagne!
  • First really successful flights exploiting shear line lift at Tehachapi
  • First flights at Crystalaire.
  • Learned a bit about flying in wave over the mountains near Crystal. Lots more to learn!
  • A really successful passenger flight in which we were able to thermal with gentle turns
And some bad news:
  • All Blanik L13's worldwide were grounded after an accident in Europe. They're grounded until a testing plan is developed and approved. (I did get to learn some interesting things about aircraft safety and documentation procedure as I helped prepare paperwork related to our club Blaniks.)
  • The FAA never ruled on our complaint about Hemet-Ryan airport, so we lost a whole year in that battle. The ruling is due "any day now".
  • My plans to take my Commercial and Instructor Practical Tests did not progress much. I was not satisfied with the prospects of taking the tests at Lake Elsinore, and we lost the use of the Blaniks. Late in the year we placed our Grob at Crystal, and I resumed training late in December.
So... another mixed year. I continued to fly as much as possible, but there were three months I did not fly at all, the most I've ever sat out. We'll see what happens in 2011 - I'm hoping to do some cross-country out of Crystal, and I'm hoping to fly at some other gliderports as I take a family trip to Kansas in the summertime. And I have several friends and relatives who say they want to fly this year.

Winch Launching the Grob 103 at Crystalaire

Over the last few years our club has developed our winch launching program by refurbishing our winch, by training a number of pilots, and by testing it at several different locations. We have launched the Blanik L13's many times, and the PW5 single-seater several times. Our Grob 103 Twin Astir did not have a center-of-gravity hook, and it was considered pretty heavy and not really a training ship, so we had never winch launched it. The grounding of the Blanik L13 fleet put us on hold for a while, but the club refused to give up. We found out that there is an approved CG hook add-on for our ship, which could be purchased and installed for less than $1,000. It was completed on our ship in mid-January. And some of our mechanically adept members have made improvements to the winch which have increased its power and reliability. The operators of Crystalaire have been open to having us conduct winch launches there. The runway plus dirt extensions add up to about 4500 feet which is plenty long for winch launching. So finally it has all come together. The question remained: how well would the winch launch the Twin Astir?

So the club organized a "Winch Weekend" at Crystal. I wasn't able to make it Saturday, which was just as well because the winch engine broke down after just two launches. But the crew was able to get the part and fix it early Sunday morning, so we were back in business.

Winds were good, probably 8-10 knot and at just a slight angle to the runway. Our instructor took a solo flight, then did some flights with one of the senior instructors from Crystal. The verdict was in: the combo of our winch and our Grob 103 Twin Astir works great! It accelerates really well, climbs straight and smooth. The winch has plenty of power, and its shifting of gears is not a problem. Launches were anywhere from 1300' to 1600' in the early flights. We also launched one of Crystal's gliders which I think is about 100 pounds heavier, with a greater wingspan and much better performance, and it got up to 1800'. Wow!

I was next up for a couple of launches with our instructor. If you've been following my blog you'll recall that I have had quite a few winch launches in Blanik L13, and several abortive launches in the PW5. The first few times I winch launched in the Blanik L13 it really got my attention: 0 to 55 in about three seconds, really startling the first time. I expected the heavier G103 would accelerate a little more slowly. Quite the opposite: with our beefed-up winch, the acceleration is even faster. The first one this time actually gave me a bit of a "head rush". I estimate we're now going to 50 or 55 in less than two seconds. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I think that's between 2.5G and 3G or more of acceleration. To put this in perspective, some of you may be familiar with thrill rides that use linear induction motors to accelerate ride vehicles. The one I'm familiar with is California Screamin' at Disney's California Adventure park. It goes from 0 to 55 in four to five seconds. I think the acceleration of our winch launch is nearly twice that. (I didn't notice the "head rush" effect on later launches.)

Once we were moving, the G103 seemed very smooth and eager to climb. I focused mostly on staying wings-level in the climb. The best climb rate requires having the stick all the way back or nearly so. There's sometimes just a little "porpoising" as the line gets little amounts of slack or as the winch shifts gears, but it's not very noticeable. My first launch was to 1300' AGL. The first thing I noticed after getting off the rope was that it's a little difficult to get one's bearings. During the climb, you can hardly see the ground due to the steep angle. Getting off the line nearly over the winch, the airport is behind and below, and you can't see it until you turn. All you can see is the nearly featureless desert. Once we completed our turn first turn I could see the airport and get reoriented.

On the second launch, we got to 1500' AGL but then the weak link broke. We don't think we pulled on it too hard, because that launch was about the same as the previous 5 or so of the day. It may be that the link was getting weaker with age and use, and it was just its time to break.

My first landing was not as close to the beginning of the dirt touchdown area as my instructor would have liked. Probably I was aiming a little further out because of the proximity of some wires on that end of the runway. The next time I brought it in steeper, established my aiming point closer in, and had a good landing (e.g. we didn't have to pull the glider back quite so far).

My third flight right after that was solo, and the launch went quite normally. I got up to 1400' AGL before releasing. Shortly after turning north I found lift, probably thermal. It was pretty big, and was anywhere from 300 fpm to 700 fpm and fairly consistent. I worked it for just a short while and probably could have soared away. (I spotted a hawk doing some aerobatics below me.) But this was not a day for soaring, since we were trying to get several people experienced with winch launching the Grob. So I came back after just 10 minutes. But I'm convinced that when the weather heats up we'll be able to hook thermals and get away.

A number of other people had instructional launches and short rides. I prepped the PW5 for flight, but it was getting late and we had other priorities, so I'll launch it another day. As it turns out, I flew the G103 once more late in the afternoon, the last flight of the day. One of the Crystal staff wanted to go for a ride (has flown in gliders many times but not had a winch launch). So off we went again. The initial acceleration was a little bumpy, which was new. Later we figured out that as we rotated the ship to line it up for launch, we dug the main wheel into a bit of a hole in the sandy soil. Next time we'll know to push it forward a bit so that it doesn't have the resistance of having to pull out of a hole. Not that it's a problem for the winch - plenty of power there! But it makes the initial roll start with a bump, which you don't need when you're getting to 55 in 2 seconds. Anyway, we got up to 1400' and released. We found a little sustaining lift but it didn't keep us up very long - by this time the sun was getting fairly low in the sky so the thermal was weaker. She had a great time, and we came back after just about 7 minutes. This time I intentionally landed long onto the paved runway (really smoothly, if I may say so), and rolled all the way to the east end of the airport, stopping perfectly in front of our tie-down spot.

I think we had a total of 14 winch launches that day. A good beginning to what we hope will be a new standard operating procedure for the club at this location.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Discontinuing work on Commercial and Instructor

Followers of this blog will recall that I was days away from taking my Commercial and Instructor practical tests back in September 2009, when gliding at Hemet-Ryan airport was abruptly shut down. I had completed all three written tests, and completed all my flight training requirement. Since then it has been difficult to work out a combination of aircraft, gliderport, instructor, and examiner that would enable me to finish the practical tests at an acceptable cost.

Recently I had resolved those logistics, or so I thought. I had resumed working toward completing my Commercial certificate before my written test expires at the end of January, and my Instructor certificate by the middle of March. I have been flying with an instructor in the club Grob 103 at Crystal, revisiting the maneuvers for the flight test and getting current on the required instructional flights. I have come to realize that I would not be sufficiently prepared for either the oral or flight portions of the Commercial test by the end of January. In addition, trying to balance this work with a number of other family commitments and projects was causing me some problems. I simply needed more study time and more practice than I would be able to accomplish before the deadline. I could retake the written test and continue on, but I have decided it is not going to work out at this time. There are several factors leading to this decision:

  • Proficiency in the Grob. I was well prepared for this test a year and a half ago in the Blanik L13 (before the Hemet crisis). But I have three times as much experience in the L13, and the Grob 103 Twin Astir (at least our unit) is more difficult to fly precisely from the rear seat. Some of the things that I need to demonstrate for the test are things I have not used recently in recreational and cross-country flying, so I’m out of practice on those maneuvers. I could get there, but not quickly enough.
  • Preparation for oral knowledge testing. I was prepared for this part a year and a half ago, but that knowledge (airspace requirements, regulations etc.) fades if it’s not refreshed. Since the time the OCSA Grob became available at Crystal, and I located an acceptable examiner, I have not had time for refresher study due to a family situation that is requiring much more of my time over the last few months.
  • Cost. When I started on these ratings three years ago, I was able to work with the OCSA volunteer instructors (whom I greatly appreciate!), the tow fees were significantly less at Hemet, and the drive and gas prices were much less. (For example, Crystal does not offer a break on pattern tows.) I understand why Crystal’s tow fees are higher – better facilities, great services, and fuel has gone up – but I can’t afford $450 to $650 in tow and instructional fees and other expenses every flying day – and I would need many more flying days to go on to the Instructor rating. Getting the proficiency I need in the current situation will be too expensive. It could easily cost another $3,000 to $5,000 to complete the Instructor test. Maybe I’ll be able to resume in a lower-cost environment in the future… Lake Elsinore Soaring Club’s tow and instructor fees are lower, but there are some other issues in taking practical tests at that location that I will not comment on here.
  • Purpose. When I started on this three years ago, I planned to become a CFI in the club environment, and “give back” to OCSA and soaring. I realize that each certificate is a “license to learn”, and I was expecting to work under the guidance of our club CFIs, and work with our constant flow of primary students as I built up my knowledge and skills. Now that the OCSA teaching environment has changed due to the Hemet and Blanik L13 situations, I don’t know what I would even do with my CFI rating. I don’t envision working as a paid instructor on Saturdays at Crystal or anywhere else. I don’t especially want to teach in 2-33’s for Lake Elsinore Soaring Club. A CFI needs to train and solo and recommend a minimum number of students to stay current – and I don’t see that situation in my future anymore.

So until some of these factors change, I’ll put my Commercial and Instructor ratings on hold, and re-take my knowledge tests later if necessary. This is a difficult decision, since I have been working on this for three years. I greatly appreciate the training and guidance I have received from my instructors, and the support of my OCSA friends. I’ll continue to fly the Grob and PW5 for fun and wave experience at Crystal and elsewhere with OCSA, and look forward to some cross-country flights this summer.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Four busy flights

Today at Crystalaire it was cold and calm, with only high clouds, so we were able to do some high flights for further preparation for my Commercial practical test. Most of it went well, except for some areas I'll delve into below. Four flights, one of them the highest tow I've ever taken so we would have time for a lot of air work. We covered many things, including: all tow signals, boxing the wake (my first time in a Grob 103), steep turns (nailed it!), stalls and detection of incipient stalls (straight, turning, with and without spoilers), spin awareness (we couldn't really get it to spin), hard slips (harder to control in the Grob than in Blaniks), slack line, slack line in turns, precision landings.

Slack line in turns gave me lots of trouble. This instructor teaches yet another method. When I first learned to fly, slack removal was accomplished by yawing the glider away from the towplane and then straightening it out just as the slack comes out. I learned to do that really well and smoothly. When I first trained for Commercial about two years ago, the instructor said current practice had switched to a "do nothing" method. Basically you realign the glider with the towplane and let the slack come out gradually as the glider slows down. This time around, the approach is a "climb and dive" method: align the glider and climb parallel to the towplane to slow down, then dive slightly and come back behind the towplane just as the slack comes out and the glider's speed again matches the plane's speed. I took several times to get what he was trying to show, and finally got some really good recoveries on the right side (left turns). On the left side, I got way out of line - I think I was diving and realigning way too early, causing even more slack. One time it came out so abruptly that I broke the weak link. Another time the slack got so big that we released from tow. This was really weird and difficult - not natural at all. Before today I'd had 275 flights, some with strong turbulence on tow, and I've never even come close to breaking a rope or getting such a huge loop of slack line. We debriefed about it later, and I'll study the book and we'll try it some more next time. I will learn to do it this way, but I want to think about it some before I try to teach it. This really seems much more complicated than it needs to be. I thought about practicing on Condor, but he says Condor doesn't allow slack. If any readers have comments on this topic, I'd like to hear them.

Precision landing is giving me some trouble, probably because I've not tried to do many of them in the Grob. Only about 20% of my flights have been in the Grob, and many of the landings were on long runways as opposed to the short-field landings we practiced so much in the Blaniks. We realized I was not using an aiming point but rather I was aiming for the touchdown point and not doing a sharp roundout, so I worked on that. (On the plus side, my speed control was much better than last time!) Also, I need to do a paradigm shift: initially I was taught to not touch the spoilers hardly at all after roundout: adding them can cause a hard landing, and closing them can cause ballooning. But I need to break out of that model and gently adjust spoilers to effect the touchdown exactly where I want it. I think that's harder in the Grob because the spoiler control is stiff and hard to finesse. CFI's recommendation is to brace my arm against the side, and use wrist motion rather than arm muscle to move it a tiny amount. So that's on the agenda for my next session.