Since I'm getting closer to my checkride, my lessons now consist primarily of honing my skills. With all of my solo, cross country and night flying requirements completed, my flying lessons focus on improving my skills, and when I'm not flying, I've got my head buried in books, videos and websites in an attempt get my brain wrapped around the academics of flying.
At this stage in the game there are a number of aspects of flying that I'm pretty comfortable with, flight planning, cross country, night flying, ground reference maneuvers, normal, soft field and short field takeoffs, flying under the hood, solos, unusual attitude recovery, even tower work to some extent, but there are a few areas that still elude me, and I'm doing my best to keep from getting frustrated. At the top of the list are a number of instruments and the on-the-fly calculations required while in flight. As anyone keeping up with my journal is aware, VORs remain a challenge, some days I feel like I get it, and some days, well, I don't. Several other challenging aspects include on the fly calculations for density altitude and airspeed and a clearer understanding of airspace. I know it's just a matter of practice so this weekend I'm going to pound away at every piece of information I have at my disposal in an attempt to get through it. That said, today was about landings and tower operations.
JP and I spent a little time before today's flight talking about the particular challenges I'm facing. He's a great instructor, always keeping me positive and focused, and he's right there to help me, over and over again with anything I'm struggling with. This is actually a very important aspect of instruction. If you're flight training, make sure you talk to your instructor all the time about the challenges and difficulties you're having, as well as areas where you feel you are doing well. While they have a pretty good idea based on your performance of where you are at in your training, these folks aren't mind readers. Your time is best spent on those areas where you feel like you need the most assistance, so make sure you let them know. I'm a fairly confident guy, but that has gotten me in trouble more than once in this process when my CFI's have just assumed I was comfortable with a particular aspect of my training, when in reality, I felt like I was barely grasping the concept at all.
Discussion behind us, it was time to fly. We jumped in the Cessna and I got us all dialed in for Santa Rosa. It was actually such a comfort to just program the GPS for our destination knowing that I wasn't going to get a surprise diversion to another airport, or have the throttle pulled back for emergency engine failure practice. For the past week or so everything has been about refining skills for the checkride, and as much as I enjoy it, it does put me a bit on edge knowing that I'm going to be tested during every aspect of flight, but today was different, today was just about getting some softfield landing and tower practice in, so there were no flight plans to follow, no maneuvers to practice and no surprises.
The flight up to Santa Rosa was smooth and fairly quiet, although JP and I did go over a few things, what was my approach going to be, what were my radio calls etc. Of course, as soon as I tuned in the frequency for SRTS (Santa Rosa Airport) we realized it was going to be a challenge. ATC was busy...really busy, negotiating pilots coming in from all directions and they had their hands full, so full it was hard to even break in and let them know we were 10 miles out and heading in for some pattern practice, something under the circumstances, I'm sure they were thrilled to hear, but make the call I did, and with in 5 minutes we were in the pattern.
While it would be great to get to Santa Rosa on a calm day when everything was blissful and organized, today wasn't going to be that day, but hey, all practice is good practice, and airport chaos is just part of what you have to be ready for when you fly. I think JP would have preferred to head out somewhere else, but we had made the trip and I was up for the mayhem, I mean, why not...this is going to happen and personally, I'd prefer it happen with JP in the seat next to me.
On our first approach it was fairly clear that ATC had their hands full because we watched in somewhat amazement as the pilot in front of us extended his downwind approach over 5 miles north, which of course meant, even though we had been given clearance to land, that we were going to continue to follow him through the pattern. The ATC controller was busy juggling a half dozen planes that had all converged at once on the airport, so there were planes in closed traffic in the right pattern with us, and planes coming in for GPS and IFR approaches both directly downwind and in a left pattern, all for runway 14, and there were several other Cessnas, one of which had a very similar call sign as us, which made listening to all of the radio jabber that much more interesting. It didn't matter to me, I was loving it. When JP asked me what I wanted to work on today I said tower practice...tower practice I wanted, and tower practice I was getting, in spades.
We rolled with the general chaos and confusion, and proceeded to make several touch and go landings after flying similar bizarrely extended patterns. Unfortunately, when ATC extends your pattern like that it eats up a lot of your lesson time which was part of JP's frustration. JP wanted to focus on softfield landings, and when you only have an hour, or an hour and a half it can be frustrating to use it flying around in long extended patterns, but to me, its all about the experience, and this was as real as it gets. By about the fourth flight through the pattern things started to calm down, and we got in a few more landings.
On the way back from Santa Rosa I tuned the VOR into Point Reyes and JP did his best to once again get the whole idea through my obviously very thick head. Some of it clicked, some of it didn't, 1 step forward, 2 steps back. I know when it happens I'm going to feel very good about it, but right now I'm not feeling like the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Well, it's Friday, and I have the whole weekend to see if I can figure it out before I come back on Monday. We're going to spend a few more hours next week hammering away at written and oral test prep, and then the following week is likely to be all about check ride prep, so for now I'm off to practice take offs and landings, density altitude and weight and balance calculations.