May 17th, 2012: Ground Reference Maneuvers
I flew later in the day today, 6 - 7pm actually. By 6pm this time of year in Sonoma the wind really picks up, and today was no exception, so I knew it was going to be challenging…and exciting. Today was ground maneuver day, that's when you reach a certain altitude, stay there, and practice maneuvers…well, over the ground.
I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to actually take off today. It was pretty windy on the ground, and since the idea was to practice the maneuvers, and not the take off, my CFI took the controls and got us off the runway but they were right back in my hands by the time we were 200 feet or so in the air. The takeoff wasn't as tricky as we thought it might have been, but since most flying accidents actually happen on takeoff and landing, these aren't things you take chances with. I climbed to 2300 feet, leveled off and headed out towards Highway 37 where there's a good 5 mile stretch of straight ease/west road between 2 good markers, Lakeville highway running north and south on the east end, and the Petaluma river running north and south on the west end. Before practicing the ground maneuvers I pulled us into 2 full power stalls, intentionally of course…I just can't get enough of those, we then headed out over the San Francisco Bay where I practiced a few full power high bank turns in the wind. I should mention as well, that today, as we were headed out to practice the turns, I actually came upon my first plane, flying very fast and very close to our path and at the same altitude at about 10 o'clock. You read about these things, and you expect them to happen, but when they do, everything happens much faster than you even think it might. Collision avoidance…ok, so here it was in action, bank the plane to the right and get out of the way…check, all good, now off to spin in circles 1/2 mile above the Bay.
Unlike last week, these were much harder today. The wind was choppy and relentless and when in the steep bank it was challenging to keep the attitude of the plane in steady flight. At 2 points I took my eyes off of the horizon instantly allowing the nose to come down and the plane began to immediately start diving into a high speed spin, exhilarating to say the least. Amazingly, on both occasions I was able to push the stick forward and to the right quickly pulling the plane back up and into steady flight without losing my bank. What can I say, it was totally cool. That's the kind of thing that you can't blow. A bad decision at that point and you could be headed straight into the ground, or in my case today, the San Francisco Bay. The trick is not to panic, just keep control and get the plane out of the spin and back into steady flight. Just at the point where I was pulling it back up I did hear my instructor mumble something to the affect of, "uh oh, we're going down". Of course he was just joking, and knew that at any moment he could take over and get us out, but he never touched the controls and just let me handle it. His "sarcasm" was really his way of just letting me know that this is where it happens…make the wrong decision at that moment, kick the rudder to the right or left, swing into a slide or stall, and yes, you're probably going to end up in some trouble, so, don't do those things, get the stick a little forward, get your angle of attack back, and regain control of the plane.
After a few 360 degree high speed banks in each direction I took the plane back out parallel to highway 37, where, flying west from Lakeville to the Petaluma river we were headed straight into the wind. This gave me a great opportunity to practice flying in a slip and crabbing. These techniques are used to keep you flying straight forward even though, in this case, the nose of the plane was pointed in a southwesterly direction. Crabbing and slipping require you to use cross controls to keep the plane in straight flight, a technique used both in the air to keep you flying in the right direction, and most often, close to the ground on takeoffs and landings. Much of what you practice in the air is really preparing yourself for what happens 50 feet off the ground where knowing how to fly a plane "sideways" and straight forward at the same time in a crosswind is essential. The idea today, of course, was to keep the plane at the same altitude and horizontal distance parallel to the highway while flying in a large rectangle, essentially practicing the approach pattern under similar conditions. Considering the conditions, I think I did very well, running through the full pattern 3 times I stayed parallel on all legs, although my altitude did deviate on a couple of occasions by 200 feet or so, insufficient to pass the practical test which calls for a maximum deviation of 100 feet. Still, I felt good about it, and my instructor said I did "very well" and added, "most students at this point in their training would have been all over the map". A little reassurance is a good thing.
Next we headed east out over the wet lands on the east side of Sears Point where, perpendicular to highway 37 we marked a road running north and south where I would practice the next maneuver, S turns over the road. This is more difficult than it sounds as it requires flying against, across, and with the wind in all directions as you make the turns. The idea here, is to make your turns successfully in all directions, crossing the over the road with your wings perfectly parallel. The tricky part is knowing when to bank hard, and when to bank shallow, and you have to do both while either entering or exiting the turn depending on the direction you are headed and the direction of the crosswind. Heading downwind of course adds speed over the ground which can easily carry you farther than you want to go before making your turn. Turning too shallow into the first downwind turn will cause to drift too far in the cross wind and you'll miss your mark when you cross the road, so your first turn downwind needs to be the same high bank we were just practicing earlier at 2300 feet over the bay.
About midpoint through the steep angle bank, just as you start to come around past the 90 degree point you need to shallow out the turn, if you don't, the plane will pick up too much lift on the upwind wing either driving you right back to where you came from, thus also causing you to miss your crossing point on the road, or perhaps, I can imagine, sending you into a possible turning stall or even a spin. Shallowing out the outside of the turn allows you to regain proper level flight back upwind keeping the plane in straight and level flight. Entering the upwind turn is exactly the opposite, the rule you have to keep in mind is that whatever you did last, i.e. coming out of the last turn, is what you do first entering the next turn. Seems simple enough, but up there, with a thousand things happening at once, you have to get this to the point where it's a natural reaction, and not something you're spending a lot of time thinking about. So, shallow out of the downwind turn, shallow into the upwind turn and steep bank on the way out, keeping the turn too shallow will simply cause you drift closer while continuing too far parallel to your path and keep you from crossing your mark perpendicular to the road at the right place.
I think I have all this right, if I have it reversed, I'll certainly find out when we practice it again in a few days. It took me a few of these initial S's however to get the point for sure. It's really easy to get the principal's confused when you're also focusing heavily on keeping the attitude of the plane correct as during all of this, you must also retain constant altitude, speed and coordinated flight. I practiced these S turns heading both north and south against the westerly cross wind which of course initially confused me as one would think heading the other direction would reverse part of the process, which in a way it does as where you were heading into your steep downwind bank to the left heading north, you are now heading steep into a right turn heading south. The thing I have to keep in mind here is the principal, steep out of the downwind, shallow into the upwind, shallow out of the upwind, steep into the downwind, regardless of the direction you are headed crosswind. I think…
The last maneuver of the day was the most challenging, turning on a point, or, basically, flying in circles. You'd think this would be a piece of cake right? Bank into a turn and keep it there, what could be so difficult about that? The problem is, that there's almost always a cross wind, and today it was a substantial crosswind which is precisely why it made today such a good day for practicing ground maneuvers. When you try to maintain a perfect circle over a point on the ground you must continually adjust the bank angle of the plane as the wind, say blowing at 15 knots from the west, is causing you to continually drift in the same direction. So again, while it's easier for me to visualize it now that I'm on the ground, in the air, in the moment, it was not so clear what needed to be done, but essentially the same principal applies in the circle as it does flying the S turns, it's just that you never pull the plane back into straight and level flight.
Shallow on the upwind side, steep on the downwind side. On the upwind side a shallow bank keeps you from drifting towards the center of your circle, and on the downwind side the steep bank keeps you from drifting away. Of course, the tricky part is that a circle has no sides, so your are always banking in or banking out, or somewhere in between. Needless to say, while I may now understand the theory a bit more, applying it in the wind, while maintaining attitude, altitude, coordination and speed is far more difficult than you can imagine.
I wanted to continue with a few more attempts but my instructor wasn't up to it, perhaps I made him a little queasy or perhaps it was because we had already run over time and needed to head back, no matter, I'll have plenty more opportunities to prove my naive theories.
I have to say, I love flying back to the airport, it's really the only point during instruction that you simply fly. It may only amount to 5 minutes, but it gives you a chance to just feel the plane and the air and get a subtle sense of what's going on around you, not to mention the fact that since you're not practicing any specific maneuver, you can actually just look out the window and take in the incredible beauty of our planet from that wonderful perspective, that is, after all, what makes most of us want to get up there in the first place, to see the world from different perspective. I took the plane back and headed to the airport, which this time, I was for the first time able to recognize. You'd think that would be easy, but the world looks much different up there and recognizing where you are in it, in relation to the ground is an art all of it's own. I flew the plane into the downwind leg of the approach, abeamed the numbers as they say, which means looking out your window at 90 degrees to the numbers on the runway, waited until the end of the runway was 45 degrees behind me to the left and made my 90 degree turn into the Base leg at 800 feet. On the base leg of course, there was the same severe crosswind, which called for some slipping into the wind to keep from drifting away from the runway. Marking my turn I made my final 90 degree turn onto the Final leg of the approach and did my best to keep the plane at our approach speed of 60 knots. Crosswinds being what they were, and my experience beingwhat it was, or wasn't at this point, while I managed to get us along the right path, my instructor took the controls in the last 500 feet or so and brought us down on the ground.
On my way out to my car tonight, I came across a couple of other pilots I have seen hanging around the airport. I'm finding that pilots are a very interesting lot, mellower and quieter than one might expect, which as you begin to observe, makes perfect sense, as it takes not only a great deal of confidence, but a certain calm, patience, extreme focus and lack of distraction to stay alive in the air. When asked what I was practicing today, and upon mentioning ground maneuvers, in unison both said "great day for it", referring to the strong crosswind of course. This is the thing about flying, you will experience all of these conditions, usually during every flight, so a "windy" day is as good as a calm day to a pilot, because that's really what it's all about, commanding your craft in any and every condition, the more practice you have, the more confident you become in your ability and flying is ultimately all about confidence.
Another unbelievable day in the sky, I can't wait for the next flight.