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.