When I looked at the schedule for today it said, "introduction to unusual attitudes", ok, now having grown up with 3 older brothers and having a couple of kids of my own, this was a subject I knew something about. Actually, turns out those aren't the attitudes my CFI was talking about.
Today was a great day of instruction, heading out southwest of the airport towards the bay I started my ascent to 4500 feet. At about 1600 feet my CFI said that we might as well get started at which point he took the controls for a few moments and had me put on the "hood", that little opaque pair of shades that covers enough of your vision to keep you looking only at the instruments. Not one to waste time, the next thing I heard was, "you have the controls"...ok, and so I do, looks like I'm getting some IFR practice today. JP had me do a turning ascent up to our intended altitude of 4500 feet where we continue with some additional "under the hood" maneuvers.
This is great flight training and something I really enjoy doing. It's amazing to me how little you can tell about what the plane is doing when you remove the visual clues, and until you experience it, it's hard to describe, this notion that you can be doing almost anything, ascending, descending, turning, pitching and if I were under the hood, and didn't have the instruments I'd be willing to bet I'd guess wrong about what happening 9 times out of 10, but this is exactly why IFR training is so important. One of the things that you read time and time again is that if you fly often enough, and far enough, eventually you're going to fly into IFR conditions, and I for one, want to know how to react when it happens.
Everything seems to happen much faster when you're flying by instruments as well. Because I don't have the out side references, you know, things like the horizon, the ground, the sky, all of my controls seem to me much exaggerated. Ironically, because I'm paying very close attention to the planes attitude and therefor flying in much more coordinated flight, it becomes even more difficult to feel what the plane is doing. Every experienced pilot I know will tell you, if you're flying in perfectly coordinated flight, you can't tell if you're level, or pitching, or rolling, or turning and it's a really strange sensation when you're in it, so it's a good thing there is a wall of instruments in front of you to help you figure out what's going on.
Truthfully, while I was excited about practicing IFR maneuvers, I have to say I was a little apprehensive as it's another one of those areas where having never done it, I just didn't really know what to expect, and while I had experienced some of the illusions I described about not being able to determine physically what the plane was doing in coordinated flight, I had no idea how dramatic those illusions would be.
Doing the best I can to read the instruments and make proper adjustments, my instructor runs me through a series of maneuvers including medium and steep bank turns, constant rate turns, climbs, descents, slow flight and power on and power off stalls. While it's all a challenge, it's the stalls that I enjoyed the most. As I found with most of the IFR maneuvers, pulling the plane into a stall without visual references actually resulted in a better controlled maneuver, and thinking about it more it makes sense. You're not looking at the sky and trying to determine the pitch of the plane, you're only looking at the instruments, and the same holds true with adjustments to the planes attitude, speed and coordination. Since you're concentrating on reading these instruments, and you're concerned about keeping the plane from getting out of whack, so to speak, you actually stay very focused and keep the plane under tight control. The same was true for maneuvering in slow flight, by paying such close attention to the instruments and what they're telling you, you can end up with some extrememly focused and controlled flight. Another thing I noticed about IFR flight is that it's mentally and physically exhausting and I have a healthy new respect for pilots that can do this under extreme conditions for hours at a time. We practiced these IFR maneuvers for 1/2 hour and as much as I enjoyed them, I was ready for a chance to look out the windows again and get some relief.
Putting the hood away and getting back into straight and level VFR flight I wasn't quite prepared for what happened next. Relieved from the tension of IFR flying and cruising along at 120 knots, my instructor reached over, pulled the throttle all the way to idle and said, "uh oh, engine failure". While I had experienced this several times in the Citabria, I had not yet done it in the Cessna, in fact, other than reading through the procedure only once in the POH, I didn't have much of a clue what to do next, of course, that wasn't going to save me, and my CFI had his hand firmly on the throttle, so it was time to figure something out.
Think quick, what was that acronym again, ABCDEF?, Airspeed? Best Glide? Best Field? Oh boy, ok, fly, fly first and figure it out. We were at 3500 feet which was to my advantage, but the engine was at idle and the plane was descending. Pick a field...I could see the Petaluma airport and I had plenty of altitude so that's where I was going, now get the best glide set, 68 knots in the Cessna, set the trim, check, ok, what's next? And then I started running through the sequence, is everything on? Master switch, fuel valves, magnetos...check, ok, if the engine won't start, what's next? Tune the radio to 121.5 and make your may day call, set the transponder and squelch 7700, now set the plane up for an emergency landing. Everything I just checked to see if it was on now has to come off, gas valves, tank selector, magnetos, master switch, door open ( I didn't really do these things, I just ran through the motions, touching each item along the way)...now what? We've dropped 700 feet and my CFI looked at me and said, "Not bad, you don't have to finish it if you don't want to". Oh...but I do, I need to know if I can glide this plane down 2700 more feet getting it through the landing pattern and in for a landing. "I want to try it" I said, "so make your call", "Petaluma traffic, Cessna 530ER descending to enter the pattern downwind on a 45 for simulated engine failure". I was committed.
You see, at this point I really didn't know if I could make it, I had never done this in the Cessna and I had no idea how far I could glide at the altitude I had left. Since I was above the airport I had essentially 2 choices, spiral down towards the runway, or fly away from the airport while descending and turning back towards the pattern with enough speed and altitude to make it through the pattern and on to the ground. I chose to leave the flaps up through the entire descent into the pattern figuring that engaging them would only make descend steeper, and then I started calculating distance in my head. I calculated that if I could make my turn back towards the pattern at about 1800 feet from a few mile out, I would reach the pattern well above 1100 feet which is the pattern altitude. I also figured that reaching the pattern to high was better than reaching the pattern too low. While much of this was admittedly guess work, what I did know is that if I could abeam the runway numbers at 1000 feet at 70 knots, I could make it through the pattern and land, so that's what I focused on, and I did everything I could to make it to the numbers with that in mind, and that's just what I did. While I thought I could make it through the base and final leg of the pattern with my current speed, this was the first time that I didn't have my hand on the throttle to make those past minute adjustments you often need, no, this time, I had to glide it all the way through. This means I couldn't dump wind out of the wings by banking too steeply in my turns, or inadvertently pitching the nose up, causing the plane to slow down, I had to think this through and use everything I had learned about flying and landing in the pattern.
I chose not to engage the first 10 degrees of flaps until I was on the base leg, turning final at a comfortable 700 feet, I had a nice approach on final, but still I knew that if I engaged the flaps too soon, and slowed and descended too quickly, I wouldn't make the runway. I was about halfway through final when I made the decision to engage the next 10 degrees of flaps, and then when I knew I was going to make the runway, I engaged the final 10 degrees, pitched the nose down to keep my speed up and descended through the last 200 feet comfortably making the runway, started my flare holding it off as long as I could and dropping the wheels on the ground. It was an amazing feeling, I had just brought the Cessna down 3500 feet, nearly 10 minutes of flying without power, and landed it safely on the runway. What a boost of confidence.
Of course, we weren't done yet. With one full stop emergency landing under my belt, we headed back to the sky, back to 4000 feet where on the flight from Petaluma back to Skypark, my instructor introduced me to unusual attitude recovery, more crazy fun flight training. Flying at 4000 feet JP had me look down at the floor with my head between my legs as he contorted the Cessna into unimaginable maneuvers, and just when he got the plane, and me, sufficiently out of whack he let loose of the controls and yelled, "recover". This is a challenging scenerio. In a matter of seconds you have to determine in what directions the plane is flying, up, down, turning, left, right and then take the appropriate and rather immediate steps to correct it. If the plane is pitching up and turning, this consists of pitching the nose down and engaging full throttle then immediately recovering into straight and level flight. If the look up and the plane is pitching down and turning you need to get the throttle back, immediately level your flight attitude and then start pitching the nose back up asap. I liked it so much we ran through it 4 times, but by the last one, and with all the rest of the challenging training, I was ready to call it a day and head back to Skypark, after all, I had one more landing ahead of me down to the trickiest little field around.
I felt great about all of my flying today and I think my instructor felt that way too which made it all the more satisfying. Coming into Skypark I made one last set of calls through the left pattern to 26 and landed the plane in a mild 90 degree crosswind, one more notch on the belt for the day. What a superb day of flight training, and an amazing day of flying.