50 More Hours and My First Ski Landings

With so much other stuff going on, I haven’t updated my flying blog in quite a long time. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been flying, though, in fact I have over 150 hours in my logbook now.

I’ve learned a lot in those 50 hours since I made my last post. One one memorable flight, I transported a 172 from Merrill Field to Galena. However, I didn’t make it all the way to Galena.

The weather was great when we departed Anchorage, and although it looked like a system was slowly moving in from the Bering Sea, we thought we had enough time to make it to Galena and back.

We had sunshine and blue skies all the way over the Alaska Range, but as we approached Farewell, the ceilings dropped to about 1,500′. After picking out way through low clouds and low hills north of Farewell in rapidly deteriorating conditions, we made the call to turn around and divert to Fairbanks.

It was the right call, and we were able to make it all the way without incident. That was my cross country flight where I had to divert because of weather and that alone was a huge learning experience.

Another highlight came this month when my friend Udo let me do some ski touch and gos from the right seat in his Cessna 170 on some frozen lakes out in the Mat-Su valley. Technically they were my first off airport landings ever, and of course, my first ski landings as well.

It was a really neat experience bringing the plane down on skis. The snow was good, and so my three landings were as smooth as butter. Here’s a fun video that Udo made of our flight with his GoPro camera clamped to the wing strut. Enjoy!

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100 Hours and High Performance Endorsement

Alot has happened in the past few months, but unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to sit down and write about it.

Back in February, on my birthday in fact, I surpassed my 100 hour mark. It was a cold, clear winter day and so I took the 172 up towards the Alaska Range and flew over the Lower Kahiltna Glacier to the point where it meets the Pika Glacier. I had done a rock climbing trip on the Pika glacier three summers ago, so it was a really meaningful experience to log my 100th hour while looking up the Pika at the granite towers that we had climbed during our trip.

Looking up the Pika Glacier, Alaska Range

Looking up the Pika Glacier, Alaska Range

I actually flew quite a bit this winter, but then a welcome stretch of work hit in March and I found myself playing photographer much more than pilot during the early part of Spring. Once April and May hit, though, I’ve been back up in the air quite a bit, learning more than ever.

A couple of weeks ago, I got my high performance endorsement in the C182, and since that time I’ve been logging some valuable HP time while flying right seat in a C170, C185, Maule M-5 and a Beaver. The the Beaver is an amazing aircraft to fly. For as big as it is, the thing is so docile in the air. It steers so gently, like a Cadillac with power steering, and once you get it trimmed correctly, it pretty much just flies itself.

The main thing with High Performance aircraft is learning how to manage the power during flight. As with any airplane, you don’t want to make any sudden changes, and as you do adjust power, you want to anticipate your intentions and make gradual changes in a specific order. Basically, when adding power, you advance the props first and then the throttles. When decreasing power, you decrease the throttles first and then the props. Following this method will be easiest on the engine.

Another day while doing touch and go’s in the 172 at Birchwood with an instructor, he had me practice an engine failure after takeoff procedure. He warned me beforehand, an then pulled the power at 600′ AGL off of runway 19R. After my “Oh shit” moment, I quickly pushed the nose forward to establish best glide and then turned the aircraft back to the runway. I made it in plenty of time, even with full tanks and two people in the plane.

Having flown with a number of different pilots and three different instructors recently, I’ve heard many different theories regarding engine failure procedures. One instructor had me establish different options for different altitudes, which might include a turn back towards the airport. One stressed not to turn back at all under 1,000′ AGL, which is often echoed by the Air Saftey Foundation. I can see that beign a very safe guideline, but in real life, that may not be the best option. Turning back may be the safer thing to do in certain situations, so it was very good practice to actually practice that firsthand with an instructor in the plane.

As summer approaches here in Alaska, I’m starting to shop for airplanes, and so far I’ve looked at a couple of Aeronca Super Chiefs and have called on some other small fabric two seaters. They look like great little planes and are certainly in my price range. I’ve also considered Cessna 140’s and have even called on a couple within the state. I think if I were to get a 140, though, I’d probably want to find one with a slightly bigger engine than the stock C85. Having talked with alot of people, it seems as if that would be a better option for the kind of backcountry flying I want to do.

Although I still have alot to learning to do before I would attempt anything resembling an off airport landing, flying with friends in their own planes and landing on gravel bars and beaches has certainly inspired me to start moving in that direction.

Although one airplane owner said with a smile, “buying an airplane is never a good idea,” the way I see it, it’s only money and you only live once. I just don’t see myself being a pilot in Alaska and not having my own place at some point. I just want that point to be sooner than later.

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Another Lesson in the 206

I went up for another flight in the 206 with Rob other day. There have not been very many weeks where I’ve flown two days in a row, so I was excited about being able to take back to back lessons with such an experienced instructor. With the information still fresh in my mind from the previous day’s lesson, we took off from Merrill and flew west towards Mt. Susitna. 

First, Rob had me warm up with some turns and then some climbing turns. The 206 felt familiar and I did pretty well holding altitude, even through the steep turns. Then he had me do some dutch rolls. I had them backwards at first, at put the plane into a slip with each turn until Rob demonstrated how you essentially begin a bank with coordinated rudder and aileron and then reverse the bank before the plane actually starts turning. I worked on keeping the nose of the plane tracking straight and did much better on my second try.

Then we worked on engine failure at takeoff procedures and discussed the options for safely getting the plane down within a few hundred feet of the ground. We practiced by performing an imaginary takeoff on runway 7 at a safe altitude at 3,000 feet, and then climbing to different altitudes before pulling the throttle. The goal was to establish best glide speed and then see how much altitude I would need to turn to turn back around to a heading of 220, which is the same heading of the gravel runway at Merrill. The exercise determined that I could theoretically perform the turn and land with only 400 feet. 

Next, we worked on slips. We climbed up and around the backside of Mt. Susitna, and then Rob had me perform the technique that he explained the previous day, where you slip the aircraft down a steep mountain valley in order to make a controlled descent through the terrain. I practiced the maneuver four times down through Susitna’s “neck”, pulling out at different altitudes with each pass. Rob constantly gave me tips on wind and mountain and terrain flying as I dropped in and then flew back around for each go. It was an excellent exercise and I gained a great deal of confidence in handling the aircraft.

When we returned to Merrill, we did a few touch and go landings. During each takeoff, we paid attention to altitude at 100 foot intervals and looked around to note the safest and best available emergency landing spots. Rob instilled in me the importance of establishing a workable plan for landing in the event of an engine failure right after takeoff, especially at the home airport. Accepted guidelines say that turning all the way back to the departing runway is not the right choice, but at the average airfield, there are other options, such as cross runways, taxiways and open fields.

My own observations on runway 7 revealed the following: At 100 feet, land straight down the runway. 200 feet, turn right and land on Taxiway Golf. 300-500 feet, turn right and land on the gravel runway. I might not make it all the way around at 300 feet, but the airfield is pretty open in the area around the gravel field, so the chance of hitting something is far less than there than the crowded parking lot at the Northway Mall, even though it’s directly in front of the runway.

Rob taught me some very good lessons during our two days in 206, and he gave me some helpful tips to help improve safety, such as how to tune the radios by feel when you’re looking outside the aircraft to search for traffic. Being my third lesson in a high performance plane, I’m getting pretty comfortable managing the constant speed prop and the added operational procedures of the 206. I don’t foresee any problems getting my endorsement and being checked out in this aircraft when the time comes. And the next time I do a takeoff on runway 25, I’ll practice the above observational exercise and note possible landing spots at the west end of the airport.

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High Performance Instruction in the 206

The other day, I flew with a CFI and got some high performance and mountain flying instruction in a Cessna 206. Rob, my instructor, is a long time Division of Wildlife pilot who has considerable experience flying in mountain environment throughout Alaska, and he taught me a great deal about general aircraft handling and awareness.

Leaving Merrill, we flew out to the Susitna Flats, where he had me practice my airwork and general flying technique of the 206. Begin a larger, heavier and much more powerful aircraft, it took a little bit of time to get used to the increased speed and quickness in which it responds to control input, but overall, I seemed to handle the plane pretty well.

We started with turns and steep turns and then did quite a bit of slow flight and stalls. For the added weight, the 206 is surprisingly stable at slow speeds and it’s able to fly at a very low airspeed before breaking into a stall. Recovery was no problem, and simply dropping the nose just a little quickly bit brought it back under control.

Rob then had me practice some slips, which also went well, although with my short legs, I found it to be somewhat of a whole body effort to hold the rudder all the way to the floor. During the exercise, he explained a great deal about useful applications of slips, and the principles of coordinated flight, stalls and spins. He really did a good job reiterating some valuable aircraft knowledge, and combined with my recent reading of “Stick and Rudder,” I feel as if the method of flying is really starting to become firmly planted in both my understanding and my actual skills in the airplane.

Next, we flew over to Wasilla to practice some takeoffs and landings. We did six total, which included some soft field takeoffs. Overall, I did really well, and even though some of my patterns were a little wide, I always glided in with a consistent speed on final and touched down smoothly. I need to keep working on keeping the plane straight on the centerline after landing, especially in the 206, which has so much more power. During one soft field takeoff, the plane literally jumped off the runway so fast that I didn’t act quickly enough to keep it in ground effect and I ended up tapping the wheels down again before I got it under control and began our climbout.

Leaving Wasilla, we headed over to the Knik Glacier, where Rob gave me a lesson on mountain flying techniques. Having lots of mountain experience on the ground, I already understand a lot of what are essentially common sense methods and hazards, but hearing it from an experienced mountain pilot really drove the information home for me. He taught me about how to evaluate the terrain and hwo to stay to the right and enter valleys, and at the same time, always have a plan for getting out. All the while, he drilled into me the importance of always keeping aware of possible landing spots in case of engine failure, especially in terrain where you might not always have smooth flat options.

Throughout the course of the day, weather was marginal around the Mat-Su area, and as we flew back to Merrill, we noticed that the clouds had started to close in around Anchorage. We listened to the ATIS, debated our options, and eventually decided to approach from the east next to the mountains. There was a low cloud layer sitting right up against the Chugach, but this way seemed like a better choice than coming in over the water, where the ceilings were even lower.

Crossing over Birchwood, we actually popped up above the ceiling and flew a tenuous approach towards Anchorage, the whole time keeping sight of the ground through the thinner layers just to our right. Due to airspace restrictions, though we were unable to fly over the more clear areas, and had to stay above a thick cloud layer that hung over all of Eagle River.

We continuously evaluated our options each minute, all the while keeping in mind the option to simply turn around and head back towards Wasilla, where it was clear. Our plan was to keep monitoring the ground through the thin cloud layers and hope that that there was possibly a break in the clouds either near Merrill, or over the other end of the town, where we could drop below them and come in from the south.

Even though we were flying directly above a thick layer, I could still faintly see the highway, Moose Run Golf Course and Bryant Field off to the right, as well as the recognizable mountain terrain to the left. I called the tower and announced our position, and then used the Glenn Highway as a guide to help me stay in legal airspace as I descended through the break and lined up for my final approach to Merrill. As soon as I was safely on the ground, clouds and snow pretty much closed in around the airport.

Rob was great throughout the entire approach, he just kept talking calmly, giving me tips on how to continually assess the situation and how to know what types of changes or conditions would make us want to turn around, if needed. He did a really good job instilling confidence in my own flying and decision making skills, and he taught me a lot about how to deal with marginal weather such as this.

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Hours Now Doubled

According to my logbook, I have now doubled my hours since I took my checkride. Essentially, this means that I have flown as many hours as a private pilot as I did a student. There are, of course, different ways to analyze a logbook. For example, my number of individual flights remains greater as a student, but if I count student solo flights, I have flown more times alone than I have with an instructor. Also, I have spent more months as a private pilot than I did as a student. Nonetheless, since pilot experience is universally measured in hours, I count my doubled hours as a personal milestone.

With this in mind, I look back and ask myself, have also I doubled my pilot knowledge and flying skills as well? Indeed, this is harder to measure, but if I am to go only by the mantra that a good pilot is always learning, then I have to say yes.

Flipping through my logbook, I think back and remember some of the things that I learned on specific flights. What’s even more inspiring is to look back just a few entries to a flight I might have taken only a month or two ago, and compare that level of perceived experience to the knowledge that I feel I’ve gained since that time. Since I try to mentally digest and recount the events of every flight that I take, (largely the purpose of this blog) I always feel confident with the level of forward momentum that each new experience bestows upon me and my flying abilities.

Let’s go back to that mantra, “a good pilot is always learning.” It seems so apt, and not just because you gain hours, which translates into experience with each flight you take. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, flying is not only in my blood, it’s in my brain. I don’t want to stop learning about it, and I certainly can’t stop reading about it every chance I get. I’ve even found myself listening to aviation podcasts on my iPhone when I walk around town and do errands. One in particular that I like is The Finer Points, by Jason Miller.

Of course, from the most basic standpoint, the more you know, the safer pilot you’ll be. If I can’t afford to go flying every day and gain firsthand experience at this point, at least I can fill my brain up with knowledge that I read from some book, article or website. In that way, I always have something to look forward to for the rest of my life.

I seem to be insatiably drawn to pursuits in life that offer a lifetime of learning, whether they be music, photography, climbing or aviation. Just as there will always be a new piece or style to learn and perfect on the guitar, there are so many aspects of flying, there will always be a more perfect landing on a shorter strip with a new type of airplane. It will never end, and that’s what excites me so much about flying. Actually, it’s what excites me so much about life. If you’re not going to spend all of it learning and improving at the things you love to do, you might as well hang it up and quit.

Of course, playing the wrong chord on the guitar will never get you injured or killed. In that way, flying is much more like rock climbing. Flying carries inherent dangers and risk, and a seriously botched landing can, at the very least, hurt. Obviously, as with climbing, the more knowledge, experience and cool that you have when and if that epic moment rolls around, the better prepared you’ll be to come through it alive and unhurt.

I think that the main reason that I love learning about flying so much is that I’m so excited about what I might do with it in the future. Having only scratched the surface, I have a LONG way to go and MANY more hours before I’ll be ready to do some of the things that I hope to do with it in the future, like land on the crest of a mountain ridge in the Wrangells in my own plane and then get out and go for a hike. Or, land with skis somewhere and get out to make a few turns. The list goes on.

To put things in perspective, one year ago, I hadn’t even soloed yet. From that standpoint, I have indeed come a long way and that inspires me as much as anything. Do I still make mistakes though. Of course, who is perfect? Fortunately, it’s only been little things, like forgetting to turn the transponder to ALT, or forgetting to put my heels on the floor and thus riding the brakes a little during takeoff (only once!) I still have the occasional bounced landing, but so do the 1,000-hour pilots that I’ve flown with, so I’ll go somewhat easy on myself. As I said, little things, and I’d like to keep it that way, so I’ll keep filling my brain with knowledge every chance I can get.

I look forward to my next milestone, which right now, is my 100-hour mark that I’m quickly approaching. More importantly, I look forward to the gained experience that will come with that mark, as well as each and every other mark that I pass during my life of flying.

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First Tailwheel Lesson

While on a week-long trip back to Fort Collins, Colorado, I took a flight lesson with a good friend of mine who happens to be a CFI. Since I have been working towards my high performance rating, we had originally planned to do the lesson in a C182. However, I apparently took some Alaska weather down to Colorado with me, which made me feel right at home, but which also caused some unforseen problems. After postponing for two weather days, and dealing with a pair of hangar doors that were frozen shut, we decided to shift our focus to the only airplane that we could manage to get free, a Citabria 7GCBC.

I’d been planning to work on my tailwheel endorsement at some point in the near future, but I just haven’t made the time to get over to the airport and start. Needless to say, I was overjoyed by this stroke of good fortune. Before pulling the plane out, my instructor Dan gave me about 45 minutes worth of ground instruction, going over the different aerodynamic forces and principles that apply to flying tailwheel aircraft.

Since I had studied these concepts in my Jeppesen flight manuals for my private license, I understand the causes and effects of P-factor, Gyroscopic precession, Torque and Spiraling slipstream, but I found it helpful to have them explained and illustrated by Dan. He also showed me a really cool equation (V₂/V₁ = √W₂/W₁) for converting the typical aircraft speeds to their optimum values based on true aircraft weight in relation to gross weight. I’ve never been particularly ‘mathy,’ but I suppose it’s because I never really had real world uses for things like quadratic equations. Seeing an actual useful application for something like this makes math much more exciting.

After the lesson, we got in the plane and taxied out to the active runway. It was my first time controlling a moving taildragger and I seemed to do pretty well, managing the rudder pedals with smooth authority when necessary to keep the plane going straight. I learned that even though the tailwheel itself is controlled by the pedals, much of the steering at low speeds on the ground is caused by the propwash over the rudder.

After our run-up, we taxied out onto the centerline. I smootly applied full power, waited until a count of three and then pushed the stick all the way forward. The tail rose quickly off the ground and the pitch attitude of the aircraft suddenly rose to a wings-level position. As the effects of gyroscopic precession kicked in, I applied right rudder to counter the left turning tendency. Dan took control for a few seconds so that I could glance over and note the position of the wings in relation to the horizon. One thing about the Citabria is that it has great forward view. With the runway now in full view in front of my face, I kept the plane in that pitch attitude by slowly applying back pressure on the stick as we picked up speed, and before long, the wheels left the ground and we began our climbout.

I managed the pitch of the climb by adjusting the trim knob, which is right there on the left. It’s very easy to control and I was quickly able to set it so as to maintain neutral position on the stick. We ascended to about about 7,500′, which in Fort Collins is about 2,500′ AGL, and flew a few miles away from the airport. It was a pretty special experience to look around me and see the snowy Northern Colorado landscape below me. I had lived there for thirteen years, and now here I was flying an airplane above my old home.

Once we stabilized at our desired altitude, Dan had me do some airwork, so that he could get an idea of my flying skills, and also so that I could get used to how the Citabria handled. We did some slow flight and a few power-off stalls, both of which I easily managed. Dan was pleased with my rudder work, which has improved greatly since my lesson in the 182. Overall, I found that it was a pretty easy, and very enjoyable aircraft to control, and I pulled out of our stalls smoothly with no trouble.

This was my first time flying with a stick instead of a yoke, like I’m used to on the Cessna’s, I made the transition with very little trouble. In fact, every single element of this flight was different than I was used to: different type of aircraft, steering and throttle control with opposite hands, flap bar instead of a lever on the panel, different radio frequencies, different call sign, airport name and runway numbers, and of course, different visual scenery. I seemed handle everything just fine, and I relished in all the additional mental juggling. I did about half of the radio calls, while Dan did the other half so that I could concentrate on just flying the aircraft.

After our airwork exercises, we flew back to the airport to do some touch and go landings. We started with a three point, which went pretty well, and then worked on wheel landings. Dan had me do a couple of high speed taxis after landings to get additional practice keeping the airplane straight on the runway, and for the most part, I did pretty well. We curved gently back and forth across the centerline a couple of times, but there was no swerving or hard turns. During our ground lesson, Dan had drilled into my head that if I did find myself swerving too much, I should simply apply full power. The aircraft would be close to flying speed anyway, and getting it quickly back in the air would be the safest course of action. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that.

We did have one pretty good bounce, and from the back seat, Dan took over and initiated the go-around by pushing the throttle all the way in. I made sure on my next pass to stabilize my descent speed, which, on the Citabria is very easy to do with the trim knob. That made the difference and my next landing was much more controlled.

I finished out my fifth and final landing with a near perfect three-point, which provoked an excited response from Dan. I felt his hands grab my shoulders as he congratulated me. Since we’ve been friends for a long time and have always talked about flying together, it really meant alot to me, and probably to him as well, to be able to finally go up and gain some aviation knowledge from him.

Of course, now I’ve opened up a new can of works with the taildragger thing, and I can’t wait to get back to Alaska and continue working towards my endorsement with my private instructor, Mark. I may have to wait until after the holidays are over, but at least I feel that I have a good start.

Great day, part two.

The day ended when my other friend Paul, a longtime pilot flew down to the airport and picked me up in his Luscombe. We flew for another hour and a half all over the areas around Fort Collins. He pretty much let me steer the whole time and so I flew over my old house and practiced my stick and rudder skills while he looked out the window and took pictures.

It was a very cold flight in the barely heated old plane and by then the wind had really picked up. Paul took over for the landing, which was just fine by me. He’s got his own grass strip on his property and he’d spent the morning packing down the runway by driving back and forth on it with his truck. After being pushed by the high winds and going around twice, he finally slipped in, straightened out and set his 8×50 bush wheels down on his snowy runway, which was, in fact, plowed to a width that was no wider than the wheel base of his Lucsombe’s landing gear.

I was impressed. So much so, that I forgot to take any pictures. He’s the epitome of a local who is playing literally in his own backyard. If someone ever makes a ‘Bush Pilots of Northern Colorado’ video, he’ll certainly be in it.

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Winter Flying: Round Two

Riding my bicycle out to Merrill Field in near-zero temperatures, fiddling with the preflight checklist while wearing thick gloves and landing on runways that are completely covered with snow and ice reminds me of when I learned to fly. Since it was only a year ago when I started my lessons, those memories are still very fresh, and although I don’t think my excitement for aviation will every diminish, there will always be something special about flying airplanes in the winter. 

It’s the little things that trigger those memories for me, like how well the plane climbs out in the cold dense air, wearing my headset over a hat and sporting the same jacket that I wore during each one of my lessons last year, watching all the ski-equipped Super Cubs take off and head towards the Chugach, or seeing the snow covered Tordillo Mountains so clearly on the other side of the Inlet as I take off from runway 25. 

However, during my second winter of flying, I find myself reliving those experiences in a slightly different light. I’ve come full circle now from student to pilot, and so all those elements that were brand new to me last year are now familiar. It actually feels like I’ve been here before when I make fresh touch and go tracks on snowy runways, or when I feel that chilly air inside the cockpit.

Being more experienced now, I also take more seriously the safety aspects of winter flying in Alaska, namely what survival gear I take in the plane with me. Alaska State law mandates a list of required gear that is to be carried by all airmen. Most of the necessary items are can be purchased at places like REI, Eagle Enterprises, or even Fred Meyer, but it’s not enough to just check off a list of supplies. In a State where there are often great distances between airstrips and temperatures consistently hover in the 0 to -40 degree range during the long dark winters, what you’ll need to survive and how you might use it effectively in the unlikely event that you find yourself out in the bush with a less than fully functioning airplane is something that every pilot should carefully consider.

Early winter in the Mat-Su Valley

This past weekend I got in some more cross country hours in a nice older 172. I did a circle from Merrill to a very chilly Talkeetna, and then over to Skwentna, where I practiced some VOR navigation and soft field take offs and landings on the snow covered gravel strip. It was the perfect opportunity to test the tips that I’d learned during my recent flight with a CFI, and keeping in mind the things that he had shown me, I definitely saw improvements in my technique.

The early winter landscapes are beautiful from above, the air is so clear and the snow is beginning to accumulate everywhere. At this point, all of the lakes are frozen and except where it’s been really windy, most of them are completely covered. On the return trip, I enjoyed some great views of the backside of Mt. Susitna and of the ice flows that are starting to choke up in the mouth of the Big Su.

I landed at the Lake Hood Strip for my first time, and even though I had made sure to study the airspace regulations in my Alaska Supplement, I’ll admit that I didn’t fly the approach perfectly. During my transition across the channel from Pt. MacKenzie, I strayed a little to far east, then over compensated, which put me to the west of the ballfield, and came in a higher than the specified 600′ Lake Hood Pattern altitude. Oh well, I’ll do better next time. I did manage a smooth landing, though, despite a slight crosswind. I’ll take that as success.

This past Saturday, I got to sit right seat in a Beaver and steer it around for about a half hour. I felt like a little kid riding in my dad’s truck, it’s so much bigger than a 172. I hadn’t moved the seat all the way forward, and so it was a stretch to get my feet all the way on the rudder pedals. For being as big as it is, though, it’s a surprisingly docile aircraft once in the air. It steers very easily when you get it trimmed correctly, and when you put it into a bank, it stays banked until you bring it back out again. And of course, there is the sound of that big radial, oh that radial! Flying the Beaver for real is a ways down the road for me, but it’s definitely something do dream about while I’m out enjoying my second winter as an Alaskan pilot.

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Transitioning to the 182

Almost one year to the day after having my very first flight lesson, I found myself with an opportunity to begin training in a Cessna 182 and work towards my high performance endorsement. The 182 has more power and and it’s a heavier aircraft, but in many ways, it’s similar to the 172 and thus a fairly easy transition for most pilots.

The main difference that the 182 has over the 172 is the constant speed propellor. A CS prop functions by changing the pitch, or blade angle so that it spins a a consistent speed constant under different power settings. It’s essentially like having gears for your airplane, where the manifold pressure is controlled by the throttle, engine RPM is controlled by the prop and as before, fuel flow by the mixture control. An easy way to equate this is to imagine riding a bike. The throttle is like your pedaling cadence, where changing your prop setting is like changing gears. 

A high performance engine requires more detailed and careful attention to power settings depending on your desired airspeed and fuel flow at different altitudes. Before getting in the airplane, I went over the 182 operating manual with my instructor and we discussed some likely and often used power settings, order of how you change them in flight, and the critical speeds of the aircraft, like Vx, Vy, approach and best glide.

On the ground, I found the that the 182 handled pretty much like the 172, and once I got used to the slightly different instrument panel that I had been used to, we taxied to runway 7, got our clearance and took off. Since the 182 has more power, I had to use more right rudder, but otherwise it felt very similar to the 172 as we left the ground.

At 500′, I pulled back the throttle a bit to so that the manifold pressure gauge read 25 inches hg, and then at cruise altitude, I adjusted the power settings to 23″ and 2300rpm. We flew over to the practice area and my instructor had me perform a series of steep turns slow flight and stalls. Even though I hadn’t practiced my stalls in awhile, it all felt pretty familiar. At one point, he gave me a really good lesson and exercise on how to use the rudders more during slow flight, since they have much more affect on keeping the aircraft flying straight and level in these situations. Even though I’d heard it before, he explained it in a very easy to understand way and after I’d practiced, I felt much more comfortable with the concept.

After the airwork, we went over to practice takeoffs and landings at Birchwood. I seemed to do pretty well with the transition and I landed the thing pretty smoothly. He had me do some soft field takeoffs, and since the angle of attack is so much greater with the nose up in the air, it requires a great deal of right rudder when you add full power. One problem that I usually have with my soft field takeoffs is keeping the aircraft close to the ground as I pick up speed. As the wheels leave the ground, I try to push the nose over, but always end up well above the runway by the time I get it level. My instructor explained how as the aircraft picks up speed and wants to climb, I need to keep increasing the forward pressure to hold it there. I tried it once and it seemed to make a difference. I’ll continue to practice that.

He also showed me how to better manage my climb angle on short field takeoffs. As we climbed out at 60 KIAS, he had me pay attention to where the horizon lines up with the panel and remember what it looks like. From now on, if I takeoff and, instead of trying to hold my speed, just hold that pitch, the KIAS will level off where it needs to be. I found that to be a very good tip.

We also did a couple of simulated engine failures, and on the first one, I made what would have been a very crucial mistake. I tried to maintain a regular traffic pattern, and ended up coming in short. About halfway to the runway on final, we were sinking into the trees and I could easily see that we were not going to make it. I realized what I had done, did a go around and made a very strong mental note to not worry about making regular traffic turns. If the power goes out, get the aircraft lined up and ready to land. It’s far better to land at the other end of the runway and chance running off the other end a few feet than to land short in the trees. Very good thing to remember. We did the exercise again, and this time I got it down on the runway. I didn’t use any flaps, and my instructor reiterated that it’s fine to drop them, but only when you’re sure you’re absolutely sure that you’re going to make the runway.

All in all, it was a very good lesson and I felt quite comfortable with the higher performance engine and feel of the 182. I’ll look forward to getting up in the sky with one again soon.

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Flying Grids Over Unfamiliar Terrain

I’m currently training to become a Mission Pilot with the Alaska Civil Air Patrol. Essentially, they’re the ones who fly the planes during search and rescue missions, and since the entire crew depends on them for the safety of the flight and for the precision of accurately locating and flying over the search areas, they need to be both competent pilots and well versed in navigation. At 70 hours, even though I don’t have enough time in the airplane to qualify for MP status yet, it makes sense to go ahead and practice what I’ll need to know, so that when I do reach that mark, I’ll be prepared.

I went up this past Sunday with another CAP pilot and practiced flying a grid that we had picked out in the hills near Skwenta, which is about 50 miles northwest of Anchorage. I had not yet been out to Skwentna, and so I was keen to go somewhere new in the airplane and practice my cross country route finding. 

Flying out there in the 172 was fairly straightforward, although we did encounter some light chop on over Flathead Lake on the east side of Mt. Susitna. The weather was mostly clear, although there was a definite low pressure system moving into the Anchorage area. Even though the plane was equipped with a GPS, I tried to rely on pilotage and compass headings to get me out there. 

Beyond Mt. Susitna, it was all new terrain for me, which is always exciting. All the of the mountains of the Alaska Range were out, and our heading took us more or less right towards the impressive Kichatna Spires, which loomed closer with each passing mile. To the north, Foraker, Hunter and Denali also held court in full view. 

As we approached the junction of the Yenta and Talachulinta Rivers, I started looking for the airfield, which is really just a 3,500′ gravel strip that sits down among the trees. It was hard to spot at first, but eventually I saw the runway, fell into the pattern, and came around for the approach. It was actually my first time landing at a field that didn’t have an ATIS or AWOS broadcast, so I had to rely on the wind sock and the feeling of how the aircraft handled on final approach to tell me what was going on outside. The Cessna bounced and rocked a little bit on final, but as I descended and cleared the trees at the edge of the threshold, things smoothed out. I touched down on the soft, well maintained gravel, remembering to hold the nosewheel off and let it come down slowly on its own.

After a short break, we got back in the air to begin my grid practice. The grid that we had picked out covered a hilly area on the west side of Beluga Mountain and the lower flat areas on the north side of a small creek. Referencing my GPS coordinates, I flew to the corner of the grid, and began sweeping back and forth along the area, while trying to maintain a consistent ground track, speed and altitude. 

It turned into a real challenge when I realized that I was being blown sideways by a steady crosswind. I could see how much I had drifted by checking the longitude on the GPS, and so for the next few passes, I worked to compensate with an appropriate crab angle, while referencing features in the landscape off in the distance. Along with the wind, the uneven rising landscape, and the fact that I was in completely unfamiliar terrain, where the directions of north and south were not recognizable to me, it actually became a solid mental exercise. I began to realize why a Mission Pilot needs to be on top of his or her game.

After a few more passes in the grid, we turned and headed back to Anchorage, where the weather was slowly creeping in over the Chugach. Along the way, I thought about how this one flight and exercise had just made me a better pilot.

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Fall Flying

Not that I have been in any hurry to see summer end and the colder weather arrive, but I’ve really been looking forward to Autumn, just so that I could go flying and see the fall colors from the air. By the time I got around to starting pilot lessons last November, all the leaves had already fallen from the trees, so I’ve been waiting for this chance for nearly a year now.

As we know all too well, the weather in Alaska doesn’t always cooperate with our desires to fly airplanes, and since early fall can be quite wet around here, I’ve had to play the usual waiting game. Fortunately, my schedule coincided with one partly cloud-free day last week, so I jumped at the chance and got in a couple more hours of 172 time.

I hadn’t been south lately, so I decided to head down over the Kenai Peninsula and make it a cross country trip to Soldotna. Taking off, I climbed to cruise altitude, crossed the Turnagain Arm, and discovered one of the real joys of fall flying, the stability of the air. Unlike in the summer, where you encounter numerous pockets of warm rising air that have you fighting to hold a steady altitude, the airplane stays perfectly trimmed this time of year. The cool, steady air makes the airplane perform exceptionally well, and as long as the wind isn’t blowing too hard, it just makes you feel like a better pilot. At least that was my experience, still being at this for less than 100 hours.

Even though the airplane that I was flying had a GPS installed, I navigated soley with my eyes, my sectional chart and the Nav radios. Not that I’m any kind of old school traditionalist… ok, so I am one of those guys in some regards, I just figured that it was good practice for me to find my way by referencing the terrain and landmarks, and using the Kenai VOR and the Soldotna NDB. That’s not to say that I didn’t play with the GPS at all, and in fact I occurred to me that it might be good to keep it on the current LAT/LONG display window. If you ran into trouble, or had to make an emergency landing, having that info right in front of your eyes would allow you to relay your exact coordinates to ATC or the local FSS without having to distract yourself and spend precious seconds fiddling with the knobs on the GPS. 

As I flew, I keep my eyes open for possible landing spots, should the unlikely need arise to put the aircraft down unexpectedly. There are a few small strips on the northern side of the Kenai, but there are also alot of trees and thick forests, so it would take a good sense of awareness to find a suitable landing site in some areas. Depending on your terrain, that’s a good argument for not flying too low.

As I got closer to Skilak Lake, I flew over the Sterling Highway and turned west to follow it towards Soldotna. I’d been to the Soldotna airport once before and for the most part, I remembered what it looked like, but even so, sometimes your mind can play tricks on you as you fly. I passed a couple of the smaller airports along the highway and had to reassure myself that neither of those were my destination, partly because the ADF needle still pointed west. I can see how a pilot could get lost in places like the midwest where there are so small many airports dotted all over farmland that all looks very much the same.

Sure enough, though, I found the right airport, announced myself in the pattern and came in for a very smooth landing on runway 7. I’m finally getting a handle on controlling my descent speeds in these 180hp C172s. There wasn’t much going on there, so I just taxied back and took off again, this time heading a little bit closer to the mountains as I made my way back to Anchorage. Along the way, I took a very small detour and explored a wide valley just to the south of American Pass to check out some of the fresh snow that dusted the higher peaks on the Kenai front range. The pass itself was clouded over, so I didn’t even entertain the though of trying to go that way, instead I just circled around a low mountain before resuming my course home and landing back at Merrill. I’ll save that for another day.

Another flight, another learning experience, I’m continuing to figure things out for myself and solidify my navigation and overall piloting skills. Oh, and the scenery wasn’t too bad either, between all the golden foliage in its peak color and the fresh snow. Looking at all the snow makes me excited to fly again this winter!

Fall landscapes on the Kenai Peninsula, Southcentral Alaska

Fall landscapes on the Kenai Peninsula, Southcentral Alaska

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