Your connection with the sky

September 27th, 2012: Navigating in the air…and on the ground

Having made it reasonably well through my mock check ride, and with less than 2 weeks left before the real deal, and no time left on the "lesson" clock, I decided to knuckle down and use any available time to study.

One of the things that's been gnawing at me throughout this process is the limited time I seem to have to learn specific things, like getting a real handle on the Garmin 430's in the cockpit of the Cessna, so last week I found and installed a 430 simulator on my computer. I had actually been looking for one for the past couple of months but hadn't come up with anything until one day last week, when my CFI sent me a link to one he had come across.

I would highly recommend finding a good simulator if you have a GPS in your training plane, and I do so for one important reason, trying to figure out the GPS while you're flying, especially learning to fly, is a major distraction and it's a lot safer for everyone if you can practice setting it up on the ground.

The simulator actually works quite well and is very much like using the actual Garmin 430 in the plane. I just pretty much left it up on my screen all the time and whenever I had a few minutes, would practice running through the functions. It's a remarkable little device that 430, and while navigating it isn't completely intuitive, once you get a feel for a few of the basics, you can accomplish some very important tasks.

The first thing I wanted to be comfortable with was finding an airport by it's identifier and then setting the GPS up to track directly to the airport, something that comes in really handy all of the time, but especially during those surprise "diversions" that your CFI will throw at you. Once you're comfortable setting up the "Direct To" function, you can make a reasonable fast and efficient switch to a new track. Once you have the airport identifier entered and selected, there's a lot more information you have access to, most notably, communication frequencies which can be entered into the active and standby modes on the radio. If you spend some time with the simulator you can even learn to do some basic flight planning including waypoints and fuel usage. While all of that was fun to learn and will come in very handy on long cross country flights, I was really focused on learning to use the GPS in critical situations so I spent a lot of time setting up diversions, setting the Direct To function to a new airport, dialing in the communication frequencies, and calculating distance, speed, time and fuel burn.

Call me crazy, but I don't like being unfamiliar or uncomfortable with anything in the cockpit, so I spent a good 15 hours practicing with the simulator running through as many scenarios as I could come up with. The pressure of flying maneuvers in the checkride is enough, but once you start tossing in radio communications, GPS navigation, dead reckoning, diversions, lost procedures, emergency procedures, airspace etc, it can get pretty intimidating and I don't mind telling you, I need every advantage I can get.

Since time is running out quickly, I wanted to get back up in the air for one more solo flight prior to my checkride. Not only did I want to apply what I had learned on the simulator to real time flying, I wanted to get a little more tower practice in at the airport I would be flying out of for the test, practice a couple of diversions and perhaps an emergency engine failure or 2 if I had the time. I have also been testing out some software for the past month or so on my iPad so I was anxious to try and put everything to use on a solo flight.

After pre-flighting the Cessna, I set the GPS up for my destination airport, KSTS. I used what I had learned to get everything pre-configured before ever leaving the ground so en-route all I needed to do was switch over to the Com 2 channel as I approached Santa Rosa. Of course, no sooner did I get airborne and headed in the right direction did I toss a diversion at myself intentionally choosing an airport who's identifier I didn't have memorized. Within 15 seconds or so I had the GPS set up and was navigating towards my new destination, Angwin, a small airport at the top of a mountain about 20 miles north. For practice, I also pulled out the sectional and calculated my distance, heading, time and fuel burn on my E6B (I know, I could have used the GPS) and managed to accomplish it all in just over a minute. With that behind me and a smug grin on my face for said accomplishment, I rewarded myself by flying over Angwin and giving it a thorough examination just in case I ever did want to actually land there.

It was a spectacular day and the view was incredible, with Napa Valley under me, Lake Barryessa off to the East and the Mayacama Mountain range in front of me, it was nothing short of amazing. After getting a good look at Angwin I reset the GPS for Santa Rosa and turned to my new heading. 10 miles out I made my call into the tower and a few minutes later was flying through the pattern and in for some landing practice. I stayed in the pattern for 3 landings and takeoffs, 1 each short field, soft field and on the last pass, a normal landing to a full stop and taxi back. It's amazing how much flying you can do and without getting in much ground work at a towered airport, and this was another thing that I needed some experience at. Talking to the tower and flying touch and goes is one thing, but there's a lot going on after you hit the ground to a full stop at a towered airport. Ground tower work is an incredibly important component of flying and having read about the many accidents and runway incursions that happen on the ground, it is another item that I want to be really comfortable with.

Here is my limited and admittedly naive rookie advice on the subject of landing at towered airports. Know the airport you are landing at. Study the runway and taxi diagrams in advance so you know where everything is, that way, when the tower tells you to hold short of one eight left for landing traffic and then taxi straight via Charlie, left on Alpha, right on Kilo, hold short one eight right and contact the tower on 122.8, you actually know where that is and can visualize it. Visit the AOPA or FAA site on the web, download and print the airport diagrams for any airport you might be landing at and carry a copy in the plane with you. I clip mine to the yoke before landing so I don't have to fumble for it in the cockpit once I'm on the ground, and if I've studied it a bit before hand, all I really need to do is glance at it to verify my position after landing.

As a VFR pilot, most of the airports I fly out of are Class D, small airports that generally only have 1 or 2 runways and 1 - 4 taxi ways, and if I know before hand that the only places I can be are Charlie, Alpha and Kilo and which direction each of them takes me to the runway, it makes listening to ground control and reading back instructions a whole lot easier. Experienced pilots and ATC controllers are used to the dialogue over the radio and many of the pilots have flown in and out of the same airports a number of times, so they already know what the airport looks like, where taxiways and runways are and they're already anticipating what the controllers are going to tell them. I have to tell you, as a student pilot, having never flown in or out of most airports I visit, I don't have a clue what the controllers are going to say if I haven't looked at the airport diagrams first, and when they give you instructions, its a lot like listening to people speak fluently in a foreign language, so I can't stress enough how important it is to do some research in advance, not to mention the fact that airport familiarity is a requirement for flying anyway, so it's good to develop these habits during the entire training process.

Of course, "easier said than done" as they say, if you're like me and taking lessons in between work schedules or on your lunch break, everything about the lesson tends to be hurried. In my case the plane is scheduled in 2 hour slots and there's generally a lesson before and after mine, so you only have so much time to get everything accomplished, but there are a few simple things I've found, like looking over airport diagrams in your downtime, that can alleviate a lot of pressure when you're flying.

There are other simple things you can do to prepare. If you look at most runway diagrams carefully you'll find that there are really only a few choices. You're going to land on one of 2 or 3 runways and there are only a couple of options for exiting. Learn what and where they are. Have the radio preset to the ground frequency in advance, so when the ATC controller tells you to contact ground on point niner, you don't have to guess, fumble or ask for clarification, you just flip the Com switch to channel 2 and you're ready. Always have a small note pad and pencil ready so you can jot down a quick note. It doesn't have to be sophisticated, it just has to be recognizable. Everyone develops their own skills at this, but I find that something as simple as C, L/A, R/K, HS14 works for me. Translated that would be straight on Charlie, Left on Alpha, Right on Kilo, Hold short of one four. Again, you'll find that at most of the airports you'll be flying in and out of there are a limited number of taxi ways and runways so it's not that difficult to get a feeling for what you'll probably be asked to do when you are on the ground. On the other hand, if you haven't looked at the diagrams previous to landing, it can be not just intimidating, it can be downright dangerous.

Here's the last and probably most important thing I'll say on the subject. Let the tower know you are a student pilot. Everyone, experienced pilots and ATC controllers alike, appreciate what you are going through and they will make every attempt to be sure you heard and are clear about the instructions. If you don't tell them, they will assume that you are an experienced pilot and understand the instructions being given.

I get it, believe me, that you want everyone in the air to think you're an experienced pilot with 1000 hours, but flying and vanity are not good partners, nor is flying the place to pretend to know something you don't. Seriously, let everyone know, they'll respect and appreciate you all the more for it because the bottom line is, every pilot and controller whats the same thing, a safe flying experience. I have found that in every instance without fail, once I identified myself as a student, everyone went out of their way to be sure I was comfortable and clearly understood the instructions. This simple acknowledgment will relieve a huge amount of pressure and it goes something like this, "Santa Rosa tower, Cessna five three zero echo romeo, student pilot clear of one eight, holding at Charlie request taxi to the ramp" or when approaching "Santa Rosa Tower, Cessna five three zero echo romeo, student pilot 10 miles east, three thousand five hundred and descending, in for pattern work with bravo". You'll be amazed at the result of speaking those 2 simple words...student pilot.

So, done with my landings and tower work I headed back to Skypark, but along the way, since this was going to be my last flight before my checkride, and I had a few extra minutes, I decided to practice some S turns over Highway 37 and finish off the flight with a couple of turns around a point, 2 maneuvers I just can't get enough of. Both maneuvers went  well, and I headed back to my home base happy that I had taken the opportunity to make one more solo flight.

While I have mentioned little about it in this journal, the "ground" work has been one of the most difficult aspects of learning to fly and for a couple of primary reasons. As you might have concluded, I've been on a very aggressive flying schedule, flying at least 3 days, and sometimes 4 or 5 days a week while working more than full time, which doesn't leave a lot of time to study in between. I don't know how all flight schools work, but for me, there is always a reading and ground study component of every lesson, be it studying aerodynamics, or meteorology, or flight maneuvers, airport markings or navigation and flight planning, not to mention, that little thing called the FAR/AIM, there was and is always something more to learn. This isn't like picking up a cheesy Daniele Steel novel as you fade off to sleep either, this is all highly technical reading which takes as much concentration as flying, but every day, without fail I open the books and read and study and take notes, and read it again. I study every night when I get home and every morning before I leave and on the days I don't fly, I set aside an hour or 2 during the day or on my lunch break to study some more, and still I wonder if I will ever get through it all.

It sounds exhausting right? Even reading about it sounds exhausting but this is the amazing thing to me, I love every aspect of this flying thing. Studying may be something you have to do to get to the end of the process, but for me, it's also something I want to do. I want to know everything I can about flying, I want to be the best at this that I can possibly be, I want to know everything I possibly can that will make me a better, safer, more confident pilot. The most difficult aspect for me is not the studying, it's finding the time to learn everything I want to learn. If you're reading this journal because you're thinking about taking lessons, consider your available time and set realistic goals, it may be that it's better to extend the duration of your lessons and spread them apart to allow for enough time to study and absorb material in between.

There is a tremendous amount of material available to student pilots, between the excellent resources on the AOPA and FAA websites alone, you can can learn about every possible aspect of flying. There are also a number of really excellent online safety programs like Wings where you can study and quiz yourself online. Since it's all but impossible to carry around all of the books and study materials at all times, personally, I had to develop a system that would allow me to study just about anywhere. Much of the material you will study in books is also available free online including the FAR/AIM, PTS (Practical Test Standards), practice tests, study materials, weather, flight maneuvers, airspace, you name it, it's all out there. In my case, I downloaded PDF files for just about every aspect of flying I could find and loaded them on to my laptop and iPad, so pretty much no matter where I was, I could open something up and study. I'm hoping, that as I approach the end of my training, I'll be able to post a number of links to those resources here to make it easier for other students to find and assemble, after all, you're going to eventually end up in the air with me, and I want you to have all of the knowledge and skill available when you do.

Ok, I'm going to hop down from this soap box now. Am I ready? I'll find out in a week. For now the flying is done and it's time to bury my head in the academics of it all for one last push before the knowledge test.


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