The week between flights, from Thursday to Thursday seemed like a month. Having had the day I had yesterday and being overall disappointed with my flying I was really looking forward to today. The wind blew like mad all night last night and I was going to be very disappointed if it continued during the day as I knew I wouldn't be able to go back and attempt what had really been on the agenda yesterday, practicing take-offs and landings. There were clouds at about 5000 feet today, billowy scattered clouds, and the news last night called for scattered showers in our area today. When I awoke this morning the wind wasn't bad, steady, breezy, but not unpredictable and gusty like yesterday. As long as it held out, there was a good chance I'd get to go back up and try to redeem myself today.
Arriving at Skypark I performed the customary pre-flight check and sat with Travis to go over the lesson for today. Yesterday he had scratched out the pre-written lesson for today and penciled in his own. After going over the lesson, I pulled out some drawings I had made regarding wind direction, taxiing, and stick position under different conditions. These were the things in my head, so I needed to know if they were correct or not. After all, if that's what I'm thinking, that's what I'm going to do in those situations. I was using everything he had instructed me to do, along with what I had been reading in my flight books, I just wanted to be sure I was hearing, and reading things correctly. As it turns out, I was about half right, which brings perfect clarity to the mistakes I made yesterday. If you're going to learn to fly, you have to be willing to ask questions. Like anyone trained in their field, these guys do this day in and day out, and they're going to assume you understand what they're saying unless you slow them down and start asking questions. Consequently, I have a lot of questions. I've told my instructor on a number of occasions, you're going to have to repeat yourself…a lot, and I'm going to repeat myself…alot, that's just my learning style. Some people may just get it the first time but my mind is always racing, so to anything that's being said or demonstrated, I am adding a myriad of additional layers of thought and action, so it takes repetition for things to sink in.
The wind was pretty steady, not gusting, but was definitely slowly changing directions, but that didn't dissuade me today, I was feeling good. I'd spent most of the evening last night and the morning today thinking about what went wrong yesterday, re-reading the sections on take-offs and landings and looking carefully at my diagrams. I was confident I was going to get it right today.
Today was going to be more take-offs and landings along with some refreshers in turning and banking and some practice with high altitude power-off glides. Unlike yesterday, there were no practice taxis down the runway. I turned the plane around, taxied out, onto the runway, and didn't even ask what to do next, I knew by Travis's silence that he just expected me to do the right thing. I checked my wind, a nice steady headwind with a little left crosswind, pulled the stick back and to the left, punched the throttle, slowly pulled the tail up when the speed indicator started moving, hit 65 mph, pulled the stick back and was in the air climbing out at 500 feet per minute and heading due west. One thing I had noticed from the GPS mapping I had done of the flights yesterday was that my sense of direction was farther off than I had imagined, I was determined to do better today.
As we headed west, and yes, this time it was west, I began to notice that we were really gaining altitude fast, faster than I had experienced up to this point. Everything seemed normal, the pitch of the nose looked correct, the attitude of the plane was good, the speed seemed correct, but instead of gaining the normal 500 feet per minute, when I looked at the climb speed indicator, it was pegged art nearly 1400 feet per minute. While I didn't freak out, it was somewhat alarming as I hadn't experienced this before. When I read out the climb rate to my instructor he told me we were caught in a thermal, and updraft of air moving very fast. It was a very strange feeling as when you're in it, the plane feels perfectly normal, you can't feel any additional pressure, or wind, you're just moving with the column of air and an incredibly high speed. Once I knew what was going in it was pretty exhilarating but at the same time, a bit disconcerting, as if you were on an elevator that was about to be shot through the rooftop. The good news is, other than the clouds high above us, there was no rooftop…just the same, for a rookie like me, it was something I had only experienced in my dreams before, and those thoughts, as if I was, and I was, going too high, too fast.
One thing for sure, it took no time at all to get to our cruising altitude of 3000 feet, in fact, I had a hell of a time keeping it from going higher. I actually had to fly down, fast, just to stay level. Heading out west at 3400 feet I made a medium bank 90 degree turn south towards the San Francisco Bay. The high clouds and constant wind made for a spectacularly clear day. The visibility seemed like hundreds of miles in every direction and everything looked clean and clear and totally in focus. The horizon line was crisp and clear in every direction which made the next maneuver, a medium bank 360 degree left turn, and a medium bank 360 degree right turn seem quite easy. My coordination was much better today, and aside from the updrafts of air, my turns were consistent in angle, speed and altitude.
I felt good about both turns and my CFI must have as well as he had me pull out of the second 360 and continue in the direction of the bay. Along the way he had me practice "rocking" the plane and turning it into slips and crabs, both right and left. I had such a good time at it I just continued at 4000 feet until we were well over the water of the bay. The next lesson on the agenda was a high altitude, power off glide from 3500 feet down to 500 feet. This was practice again for the approach, and getting a feeling for how this plane in particular glides, examining both glide speed and glide angle. My instructor had me pull the power back, set my speed at 70mph and glide. The idea here is that I was supposed to tell him, if we kept gliding, where the plane would land. Where you will land is a spot about 10 degrees below the horizon, although this varies with craft and weight, and glide angle etc. With any plane, so I've read however, it's always that vertical point below the horizon, that doesn't move up or down, i.e., towards or away from the horizon, but rather only moves towards you. Of course I had been told this, and had read this, but the only practice I had was coming in for the landings yesterday and in that situation everything is happening at great speed and there's an accelerated level of intensity as well as danger, so I had a very difficult time visioning it.
Gliding from such a high altitude however gave me ample time to find that spot below the horizon and fly towards it making whatever adjustments necessary to keep the plane headed in the right direction and maintaining approach speed along the way. It was like magic, suddenly the whole idea clicked, there's the spot, that's what I'm flying towards now all I have to do is adjust my flight accordingly so I can reach my target. I found myself using everything I had learned, nosing down a bit to pick up speed, nosing up a bit to reduce my speed, slipping and crabbing to adjust my speed and glide angle, throttling in or out just a bit to compensate for all of the other things I was doing, I could have done it all day. Of course, on my first glide, while I was close, I overshot my landing mark and had to pick another, which I more successfully flew towards. At 500 feet I pushed the throttle full forward as one would in a go around and climbed once again, this time in a climbing turn, back to 3000 feet where I started the process over again, this time, more accurately picking a barn in the distance, and keeping it perfectly in my sights and glide path. Again at 500 feet, this time very much on target, I pushed the throttle full and climbed back up to cruising altitude.
To end the training for today, my instructor had me head north flying over the airport at 1500 feet continuing north perhaps 2 miles and then making a 180 degree turn back towards the airport where I entered the crosswind leg at 1000 feet, to the downwind leg. Concentrating too heavily on my altitude and descent, I missed my spot for checking the carb heat which put me a second or 2 behind, this distraction then caused me to miss the timing to abeam the numbers on the runway, which in turn caused me to push my turn to base. While over all I was feeling very good about my coordination and control, over turning my turn to base put me just ahead of where I would have like to have been for my turn to final, causing me again, to make that turn shorter and steeper than I would have liked, but my speed and flight attitude were good, I was now able to better mark my landing spot and watch it in relationship to the horizon. Using some of the techniques I had learned, slipping (although later he said I was actually sliding) and crabbing, I for the first time actually controlled my descent.
Of course, there's always something to throw you for a loop. As I was approaching on final I realized there was another aircraft, sitting at the hold short line waiting for us, waiting for ME, to land. Now, he was exactly where he should have been, but what you have to realize is that at our little airport, and from my angle, where he has sitting was just at the edge of the runway where I was landing. I will admit, that while I didn't need to, and technically I shouldn't have, it did cause me to pull my glide just a bit and adjust my landing spot on the runway a bit farther away. Unfortunately, this decision also caused me to add some speed to my descent, so I just lost all of that great glide I had managed to pull off up to this point. As soon as I picked up speed I found myself adjusting, coming in way too fast, pulling back on the stick a bit too early, dropping us to the ground with too much speed for the flare where I caught just a bit of tail bounce, flared out, again over reacting and pulling the stick back too fast for a proper 3 point landing. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't right. The fast approach and poorly timed flare caused me to float farther than I would have liked, but I did manage to set the plane down eventually on all 3 wheels and keep it steady and straight down the runway for the rollout. For all it was, or wasn't it, it was a major improvement over yesterday.
While we had planned to park the plane and be done for the day, it felt so good to almost do it right that I asked my instructor of we could go back up for one more go around. Mentally, physically, emotionally, it was a very good choice. I performed a proper taxi, stick forward, tail down, stopped at the hold line and performed my take-off check, swung the plane around onto the runway, pulled the stick back and left, pushed full throttle, pulled the tail up, hit 65mph, pulled the stick back, added a little right rudder and made, if I do say so myself, a very nice departure. Climbing to 800 feet in the departure leg I turned onto left crosswind, continued to climb to 1000 feet, turned left onto downwind, checked my carb heat, abeamed my numbers at 180 degrees, pulled the throttle back, reduced my speed to 70mph holding 1000 feet, made a left turn onto base, kept the runway in sight, descended to 500 feet easily making my turn onto final, descending steady towards my target, flaring out almost at the right moment, set the plane down on three wheels, proceeded reasonable straight down the runway, parked the plane, performed the shut down check and called it a day…a good day.