Earlier in the week I had been up practicing a couple of my new favorite things, VOR tracking and Unusual Attitude Recovery, and on the agenda for today was a little more of the same, with a twist, today I was flying "under the hood".
I love IFR training. IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, and when I'm doing my IFR training, I'm flying with something they call a "hood" which is essentially a pair of opaque glasses that fit over the top portion of your eyes, or in my case, over my glasses. Once you have them on they limit your vision to what you can see inside the cockpit so you don't have all those pesky distractions outside, like the sky and the ground, and the horizon and the mountains and all the other things you might be tempted to use to determine silly things like which way is up...or down.
The whole idea of IFR training for VFR pilots like me, VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules by the way, is so we know how to figure out which way is up, or down, or even sideways, in the event we find ourselves in a cloud, or fog, or a dust storm or the black of night...or perhaps even rain. You see, when you're flying in those conditions, believe it or not, without some instruments on the dashboard to guide you, it's hard to tell which way you're headed, especially if you are flyng particularly well in coordinated flight. In coordinated flight, when everything in the plane, and the plane are in a state of perfect balance, you can't tell up from down, or left from right, you can't tell straight and level flight from a banking 45 degree turn. I know, impossible you say...you could do it, you could tell, that's just ridiculous that you wouldn't feel what was happening in a moving plane, but I'm here to tell you, you can't. In fact, you may not even be aware of how many times you have already experienced it, flying across the country at night on a cross country trip in a 767 with the windows closed for example, you will be happily making your way up and down the isle for another magazine without the slightest idea that you are indeed standing at a 30 degree angle as the plane banks into a long coordinated turn.
In any case, that's why we practice it, so when we're in those situations we can identify where we are and continue to fly right there in the air where we belong. Today was not going to be much about flying along all straight and level in coordinated flight however, today was going to be about recovering from unusual flight attitudes using only the instruments as a guide. If straight and level flight is coordinated, you could think of an unusual attitude as pretty much the opposite. With the hood on and my head down between my knees, the instructor takes the controls and puts the plane into some very strange conditions. Turning and trimming and pitching and banking JP puts the plane into a configuration that frankly, you hope you never do yourself, and then when everything is really going quite wrong, let's go of the controls and says, "recover". That's my clue to look up, evaluate what's happening in about 1 second flat and start making control decisions. Since I can't look out the window I have to very quickly analyze a set of instruments on the dash, are we climbing or diving, are we straight or banking, are we coordinated or slipping and sliding and then as soon as you determine that, which happens in the blink of an eye, you start correcting, throttle full, pitch down, bank left, throttle back, bank right, pitch up, throttle back, pitch up, trim down...you get the idea. It's exciting, there's no doubt about it.
This is one of those things that sounds crazy and dangerous, but the truth is, if you're going to fly, you want to know everything you can about how to control the plane. To not learn would be like driving to Colorado in the winter without having ever driven in snow. It's something that is a whole lot easier if you learn how first, after all, in snow, your brakes don't stop the way they do on pavement, the car doesn't steer quite the same way, there are ruts and bumps that aren't there in the summer that grab your car and pull and turn it in different directions, but if you know it might happen, and you know what to do if it does, you're a lot more confident about your ability to handle it and get where you're going, IFR training, and unusual attitude recovery serves the same purpose, it builds confidence.
Of course, since I was enjoying it so much, and my instructor seems to as much as I do, we pulled off a half a dozen or so before getting in a little much needed VOR and GPS practice on our way out to Napa, where I was going to practice some soft field landings. VOR's are tricky things which I have talked about before, and I won't go into more detail here, but let's just say, it's one more contrary aspect of flying which is slowly starting to make sense. GPS is another system that you have to spend some time with, and it's not easy essentially trying to figure out a computer while you're trying to keep a plane in the air. To get a better understanding, I've gotten to my lesson a little early on a couple of occasions just to sit in the plane and turn the knobs a bit, which is starting t pay off, but these devices are quite sophisticated and it takes some practice just remembering what they will do, let alone figuring out how to get them to do it. Today I did fairly well flying both of my required courses to and from the VOR so we didn't spend a lot more time on it.
Since I've gotten a lot more comfortable on the radio, heading over to Napa I made all of the calls, calling into the tower from 10 miles out and letting them know we were heading in for some pattern practice, and then contacting them at each required position in the pattern. As all of these things become more natural, I get much more comfortable in the plane which of course, in turn, improves my flying. While I was all set to make a perfect approach to 18 right for my first soft field landing attempt, of course, things change, and the tower contacted us to let us kown there was a Gulf Stream Jet on an extended base and we were to follow him in to land. No problemo, I radioed in that we had the traffic in site and would be #2 to land. What I didn't know was how slow a Gulf Stream Jet could fly, I was impressed, but it meant extending my downwind leg out about 3 miles beyond the airport before making my turn to base and coming in on a quite extended final.
Everything actually worked out fine of course, although I was a little amazed that the Gulf Stream managed to use every foot of that 6000 foot runway to land, which meant I couldn't land until he had cleared the runway. All good practice though, these are just the things that happen, so I slowed my descent, waited for him to clear and touched down for a very soft wheel landing, which would have been great if that's what my instructor wanted. Cleared for my go around I quickly departed the runway and made my way around the pattern for my second attempt, this time coming in and holding off my flare as long as I possibly could, and then trying to float the plane as close to the runway as possible, for as long as possible without touching down. "Not bad" I heard through the headset as I finally touched down "next time I'd just like to see you hold it off a little longer and touch down with the nose a little higher". That's what soft field landings are about, you want to land with as little pressure and pitch forward as possible, because if you are actually landing in a "soft field" you want to hold that plane off and come down easy with the nose wheel in the air until you have to put it down, thus keeping you from "planting" the nose in the dirt or soft ground.
And so it went, for 4 more, each one getting a little better than the last until we had run out of time and needed to head back to Sonoma. JP congratulated me on all of my flying today as we landed for one last time on that infamous runway 8 at Skypark and rolled back to the ramp. I know they won't all be like this, but that's what makes days like today even sweeter.
Monday we start with some serious flight planning to prepare for my first cross country so I'll be spending a lot of time with my new friend this weekend, the E6B.