Friday, January 30, 2009

Ingrates on the Hudson

As far as landings go, it will be hard to ever top the unbelievable performance of one Capt. Sullenberger and his extraordinarily well prepared and professional crew. His quick thinking, years of preparation, and calm under intense pressure inarguably played a major role in the saving of 150+ lives. The fact that he successfully ditched an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after a dual engine loss caused by the ingestion of a number of geese without a single human fatality (presumably the geese were not quite as lucky) prompted the media to refer to the forced landing as "The Miracle on the Hudson." Now, however, we may start hearing about "Ingrates on the Hudson."

Now, I have never survived a terrifying incident such as the event these passengers lived through. I don't know what kind of adjustment period one must go through after such a traumatic experience. That said, I would hope that I would be grateful to the pilot that saved my life, and to the airline that trained him and his crew. In other words, I hope that I would never behave like this:

Some who were on the plane - brought down by a flock of geese after takeoff from La Guardia Airport on Jan. 15 - said the temporary tease of first-class perks is for the birds.

"I think if you survive a plane crash, being upgraded permanently is a good gesture too," said Fred Berretta, 41, of Charlotte, NC, where the Airbus A320 was headed.

Manhattanite Tess Sosa, who escaped the sinking plane with her husband and two small children, thought the airline was too focused on self-congratulations - and "they want to exonerate themselves as much as they can."

"They are happy they had such amazing results, and they applaud themselves, and then give us a small token?" she said. "That's how I take it."

"A small token?" That's how little Mrs. Sosa values her life? You know, with gratitude like that, I think I agree with her valuation. What exactly does Mrs. Sosa think the airline needs to exonerate itself from? Perhaps she would feel better about things if the airline was paying a few hundred thousand to her estate.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mansfield: the fourth time was no more charmed than the third

Well, to be fair it is hard to blame the Mansfield Curse for this one. The forecast was never all that promising anyway, what with a bone-chilling 15F and high overcast in the offing. Still, it's been awhile, and if Co-pilot Rick was willing to brave the frigid conditions, it would be undignified for the Capt. to be the one to wuss out. We arranged for an 0930 meeting at the 'drome, but it just wasn't to be. The initial Weather-out-the-Window(tm) observation looked promising: high, wispy clouds with a significant percentage of blue showing. One must consult a higher authority, however, when it comes to aviation forecasting and decision making. Off to DUATs to get the official view, once a cup of hot tea could be procured. Sadly, not only had the morning forecast not done anything to improve the below freezing temperatures, but it now also included a warning for "showers in the vicinity," which was a new and unwelcome addition. With the temperature at 15F, one must assume that 'showers' means 'snow' and/or 'ice'. That, and my normal aversion to starting Papa's engine when it's that cold out with only my sump heater to preheat, was enough to cancel for today.

As you can see, that probably wasn't a horrible decision:

If that keeps up, I'll be out plowing the driveway this afternoon - that will be enough of the outdoors for me today. As much as I hate the driveway clearing job, I can console myself with the idea that least it's snow this time. My biggest beef with central Ohio winter weather is that it more often than not isn't snow. Instead of nice puffy snow, we get ice or ice-byproducts like sleet or freezing fog. I don't think I'd hate winter quite as much if we got real snow, the kind of snow you can do things with, things like riding snowmobiles or skiing. But, being as you have to go through winter with the weather you have and the weather that I have is more often than not utterly craptacular, I just stay inside and endure.

Saturday was pretty much the same story weather-wise, albeit with the exception of my having gone out long enough for an excursion to Lowes to pick up some wood and wood-byproducts. I've been struggling with the P-51 project because I've been using a 1/8" piece of chipboard as a work surface. It is so thin and flexible that it doesn't provide an even remotely acceptable work surface. It's slightly better than a very large piece of typing paper, but not by much. The problem with getting something better is that we traded in our Durango for a Subaru Forester a few years ago and I haven't been able to haul a large piece of plywood home without it. I finally decided to just go browse the shelves at Lowes and see if I couldn't cobble something together out of materials that would fit in the Subie.

What I ended up with was three 5/8 x 12 x 72 particle boards. Being manufactured, they're as flat as, well, boards, and plenty strong for what I'm using them for. A bonus trait was their price: cheap. I also picked up a few 2x4x96 to use to strap the three planks together, thereby forming a sturdy 3' x 6' worktop. It only took a few minutes to put it all together, although the job of lifting that heavy SOB up and onto Co-pilot Rick's sawhorses took a little longer:

The kit is at one of those stages that are rife with danger. It's time to bend the balsa top fuselage sheeting around the stringers, which is just the type of operation that inevitably ends in tears. Even thin balsa sheet wetted with warm water seems to maintain a preternatural bitterness (one could describe it as Pelosi-esque), so when I try to bend it, it invariably either cracks or breaks away from the fuselage at the lower glue joint:

It didn't crack this time, although there were most assuredly some dire warnings in the form of cracking sounds emanating from the lower edge of both sheets. The glue will take the rest of the day to dry, so I won't know until later whether or not it will all stick together once I remove the masking tape that's currently holding it all together.

Oh, and those "showers in the vicinity?" Here they are, at just about the time we would have been returning:

I'm awarding myself a "Good Call" ribbon today.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

From the Dept. of The Way Things Turn Out For Me

So, it's another indoor day, spent driving a water taxi in San Francisco Bay courtesy of the Ship Simulator 2008 program, and flying hard IFR from Wright-Patterson AFB to Rickenbacker International in a Siai-Marchetti SF-260 courtesy of the Microsoft Flight Simulator. There was also a little gluing work to do on the P-51, and there should be a great, hard-hitting football game on tonight when Pittsburgh attempts to end the dream for the scrappy Baltimore Browns. (Yes, I know.)

I thought it to be perfect conditions for a nice, hearty dinner tonight, so dug out some frozen chicken, and collection of veggies, and the slow cooker. My idea was to cook up a nice crock of Chicken & Dumplings. I don't make dumplings very often (as we'll see), but I do remember that the baking powder has to be relatively fresh or the dumplings will sit there like lumps of library paste. I diligently checked the expiration date on the bottom of the can: Oct 2004. Well, that's right out, isn't it. Useless. To the trash bin with it, post haste.

Co-pilot Egg was conveniently lounging on the sofa, spending her day working through some of the classic movies that she grew up with. There was Aladdin, there was Toy Story, and who knows what else. That level of ostentatious comfort is irresistible to me: she was given the assignment to call a neighbor to ask to borrow some baking powder of a more recent vintage and go pick it up. Unfortunately, I did not monitor the call, a failure that she shamelessly took advantage of by accepting their offer to deliver it right to the front door. Now me, I'm a firm believer that if you want to borrow it, you ought go pick it up yourself. (Shut up, Rick.) Sensing a parental opportunity, I berated her for her insensitivity.

But hey, no biggy: the neighbor has a nice rental while their car is in the shop and professes to have enjoyed the chance to drive it, albeit for only about a quarter mile. Win-win for everyone involved, right? Well, almost. The thing is, when I checked the expiration on the borrowed baking powder I found a date of May, 1990. It's fourteen years older than the stuff I had thrown away. Three years older than their eldest child. Longer than I've been married. In fact, it's old enough to vote.

We're having Chicken & Noodles for dinner.

After which, Ms. Egg will be returning the baking powder.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A little more work on the P-51

I still have no idea what I'm going to do with this thing, but it's still nice to have something to work on. I found a bunch of leftover fiberglass from the kayak that I built last year, so I'm kicking around the idea of glassing the P-51. It's not exactly fun work, but doing it would let me paint the plane using my HVLP spray gun and air compressor. That ought to be fun. I could give the plane to a neighbor that flies RC, but I've never been able to get over the Sunday afternoon when he stood behind me drinking a couple of Killian's while I spend a couple of hours fixing his computer for him without offering at least one brew to me. Funny how that stuff sticks with you, and in his case, will cost him an opportunity for what will hopefully be a nice kit. The lesson here for everyone else is pretty obvious, eh?

The P-51 is a good time killer, but I'd really rather be building another boat. I'd still like a small sailing skiff to go with the kayak. Specifically, I'd like to be building a Jimmy Skiff, a kit sold my the same outfit that I bought the kayak kit from:

It's pretty expensive, though. For now, I'll keep going on the P-51 and see if I can stretch it out until the weather breaks in a few months. The type of work isn't all that different. Today was sanding the wingtips and epoxy gluing a few parts in place:

It's nice to get some use out of my boat building clamps, even if it's not for building a boat:

Friday, January 16, 2009

My annual burning desire to immediately reincarnate as a bear

It's cold this weekend. Real cold. Not Minnesota cold, mind you, so it's not like Ohio is going to elect an angry, failed comedian to the Senate or anything, but still pretty damn cold. It's the kind of cold that makes me wish that I was a bear and could hibernate through the whole thing. It's so cold that I think the electronics in my normally hyper-reliable Subaru have had a thermal lobotomy. The car is running fine, but the digital thermometer is now preceding the temperature reading with a hyphen. Odd, that.

Oddly enough, we've only had a smattering of snow so far this year. We had just enough this week for the airport plows to have built up a small but uncrossable wall of snow/ice in front of my hangar. Not that I'd be flying anyway; anything under about 25F is just too uncomfortable. It was also just enough snow to really bollocks up a couple of my work commutes. The interesting thing about winter driving in Columbus is that it makes the slow folks go slower and the fast folks go faster.

A large percentage of Central Ohio drivers seem to always consider the road conditions to be worse than they actually are, while a smaller (yet statistically significant) percentage insist on driving as if the conditions are far better than they are. The people like me that have an uncanny ability to unerringly gauge the precisely perfect speed for the conditions are stuck in the middle. We have to watch out for the yahoo that didn't clear the snow from his car and is making seemingly random lane changes as he fearlessly blazes a trail through the drifts in the far left lane, slaloming around the overly cautious drivers crawling along with a nearly palpable cloud of fear emanating from their cars, and we also have to watch the we ourselves don't run into the 15 mph rolling roadblock caused by a white-knuckled driver gripping the steering wheel as if it was his Harry Reid's neck.

I'm not a big fan of snow, but I do prefer it over the ice that we have had for the previous two weeks. Snow at least offers the opportunity to do some fun things. Things like teaching your dog how to write his name in the snow during his periodic trips to the great outdoors, for example. It's easier than you might think, actually, and requires very little intelligence on the part of the dog. The trick, you see, is to simply change the dog's name to Yellow Spot. Voila! Now every time he goes out, he writes his name in the snow!

Today is the coldest day of the year so far (which, this being only the 16th day of the year, isn't saying all that much) and for some reason the powers-that-be have decided to close the schools. Now I don't want to get into my I-walked-five-miles-to-school-through-conditions-that-would-be-too-harsh-for-Todd-Palin mode, but really: I don't remember my school ever being closed because it was cold outside. Of course, Global Warming hadn't been invented yet way back then, so perhaps it just never got this cold. Really, I'm just saying. Too cold for school? It's not like they're in an old wooden shed behind the church using the dry corn husks that weren't used in the outhouse to burn in a hub cap to keep warm, after all.

So, after making a short story long, I'm just here to tell you not to bother reading this blog this weekend. I won't be flying.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

February calendar

I think I'll try for one airplane picture and one not-an-airplane picture each month:

Photo courtesy of Co-pilot Rick

Click for larger picture, then right click on the picture to select 'Set as Desktop Background' (or similar if you're using Internet Explorer)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Freezing fog or freezing rain?

Who cares. It's a sadistic perversion of the beautiful winter weather you see on Christmas cards. ski lodge brochures, and Hallmark Channel shows either way.

Sooo... the weather outside is frightful, inside it's quite delightful, and so on. It's a stay-in day, in other words. This is not an uncommon occurrence this time of year and as such I tried to lay in supplies during the week to keep myself occupied on days like these, unsuccessfully as it turns out. I was kicking around the idea of building a model plane. Trying to keep the cost down, I immediately ruled out a flying RC plane. The cost of the radio and a mid-size engine alone would be at least $300 and I don't see any reason to head down that path.

At the bottom of the expenditure scale, I thought about a Guillow's balsa model. I built a few of the smaller rubber band powered, balsa and tissue Guillow's planes when I was a kid and I was wondering if 1) they were still in existenc, and 2) if they had anything a little larger than the small planes I had built before. I remember having problems with the small pieces/parts even back when I had decent manual dexterity and near vision - I don't think I could do it at all now. I soon found their website and zeroed in on this:

It has a 24" wingspan, big enough for clumsy fingers, poor eyesight, and a Cox .049 engine if I wanted to modify the kit for control-line flying. I've got a one acre backyard going to waste and I thought a control-line plane would work well back there. Guillow's has plenty of other large kits, but this one has the benefit of being one of the first that they have upgraded to laser cut parts. Diecut parts can be infuriating to work with if they are poorly cut; you don't take that chance with laser cut.

I went to Hobbytown on Friday to see if they had one, but the only Guillow's kits they had were the tiny little kits I had built before. I investigated other alternatives while I was there, the idea of a small electric RC also in mind for the backyard. Everything that they had was ARF (almost-ready-fly) or worse, ready to fly right out of the box. That was true of the piston engine RC planes as well. Apparently no one builds their own anymore. At the risk of sounding like I walked five miles uphill (both ways!) to school every day, back when I was heavily into RC airplanes you had to build your own. Now being as I didn't build my own RV-6 this may sound hypocritical, but what has become of our country? We can't even build our own RC kits anymore? I also found out that you can't get Cox .049 motors anymore. Man, do I feel ancient!

I found the Guillow kit on an internet mail order site for $25, so I might just go ahead and order one. Or... I could really get into this:

Video here.

I built a lot of Great Planes kits back in the day. In fact, they were my manufacturer of choice because of the high quality of their kits. I looked to see how much the radio and motor would be, thinking that maybe it would be cheaper than a gas engine. It was, but not by much. Bummer. Especially since I read through the build manual and it looks like a lot of fun to put together.

So, having failed in my search for a project, I was left with nothing to do but spend some more time straightening up the basement. And lo and behold, what did I find? Tucked back in a corner, behind a huge Miller Genuine Draft bar mirror was an old RC P-51 kit that I had started at least ten years ago. I can't remember why I didn't finish it, but I think it had something to do with gluing a part in the wrong place and not being able to fix it. Or tossing it into a box and hiding it in a dark corner out of sheer disgust. I'm fuzzy on that, but I guess it doesn't matter. I pulled out the plans and build manual (which, surprisingly for me, is clearly marked as to exactly which steps I had completed) and laid out the big parts for inspection.

I think I can go ahead and start working on it with the assumption that it can be made flyable, although I doubt if I will want to buy a new radio or engine for it. If it comes to it, there's always craigs list to look for that kind of stuff cheap. If I find that I had indeed made an unrecoverable mistake, I'll just build it for display and donate it to JP's BBQ over at Bolton.

Or I'll just set it aside over by the abandoned canoe project, or let it sit on the porch swing. It doesn't much matter what I end up doing with it as long as I enjoy spending time working on it, right? To me, that's the whole point!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Working on the Bucket List

Submitted to EAA's SportAviation magazine:

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted a Van’s RV. Even as a teenager, back when the only models available were the RV-3, RV-4, and the brand new RV-6, I had purchased the video from Van’s in order to become better acquainted with what it would take to get one of these fascinating airplanes for myself someday. A few years ago, I realized my dream of owning a Van’s airplane of my very own through the simple expedient of purchasing an already-built RV-6. As part of my pre-purchase due diligence, I had contacted a local RV-8 owner who was generous enough to not only take me flying with him, but to ride along with him as he practiced formation flying with a collection of other RV owners. I not only got rides in an RV-8, RV-6, and an RV-4 that day, I also got to experience for the first time the thrill of flying in a formation with other airplanes. While I was irrevocably hooked on the RV experience, I had more than a little trepidation about the formation flying aspect. I decided to adopt a “wait and see” mentality towards that type of advanced flying, planning instead to spend at least a year becoming comfortable with my RV before giving it a try.

By early 2007, I was ready to try my hand at formation flying. When I found out that the Ohio Valley RVators were scheduling a formation flying clinic for May, I signed up. Having signed up months before the scheduled date served to ensure that I would have plenty of time to stress and worry about it, of course. As the date of the clinic approached and the weather forecast promised suitable flying condition, the level of my anxiety rose exponentially. Having ridden along on a few formation flights the year before, I was under no illusions that this was a simple thing to do. I knew that it was quite the contrary, in fact, and having been raised on a steady diet of flying novels such as Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” I knew that I was facing a unique opportunity to quite publicly “screw the pooch.” As the date inexorably crept closer on the calendar, the butterflies that had been fluttering around in my stomach for months whenever I thought about the challenges lying before me transmogrified into a swarm of angry hornets.

The departure date arrived without regard for whether I was ready for it or not, but I felt that I had done all that I could do to prepare myself in advance. That preparation was mostly in the realm of book learning. I figured that I was going to be busy enough simply learning how to maneuver the airplane in close proximity to other airplanes, a situation that I had been diligently trained to avoid throughout all of my previous training, without simultaneously trying to learn and understand the various formations we would be flying in and the collection of signals that the formation lead would be using to direct our flight. My bible for these studies was the venerable “The Art of Formation Flying” written by a group of T-34 pilots and accepted as the definitive source of basic formation flying information. The result of studying the manual was, unfortunately, not to alleviate my anxiety but to increase it. It can be stressful to learn how much you don’t know under the best of conditions; in this case, it was terrifying.

The first official event of the clinic was in the early evening when we all sat down for pizza and a briefing regarding the events and schedules for the weekend. We went through the roster of attendees, with each person standing up for an introduction. A computer spreadsheet listing each participant in the clinic was projected onto a large screen, and it was plain to see that each pilot had been assigned a color, either red, yellow, or green. When the spotlight fell on the first "red" pilot, we were all informed that "red" translated as "you scare us," with the "us" being the more experienced formation pilots and the clinic instructors. When my turn came to stand up and introduce myself, I couldn't help pointing out that I thought that to be a fair assessment but that I also was pretty darned scared myself!

The rest of the meeting was spent going through the in-flight signals and what we could expect in the morning when we made our first flight. I was still fuzzy on some of the signals, and the class discussion did little to clear some of the more subtle questions up for me. You go to the clinic with the brain you have, though, so there was nothing to do but hope that it would all come together for me when we started flying in the morning. The stress of the preceding few days was catching up with me as well, so even as tired as I was I did not sleep well that night, with visions of echelon turns, pitch-outs, and the sundry other formation concepts that I would be introduced to me in the crucible of flight costing me any chance for a restful sleep. The 0530 wake-up call was moot, to put it bluntly.

I found that I had no appetite for breakfast, and only managed a nibble or two of a bagel. Upon arrival back at the airport, I did what I could to ensure that my airplane was up to the task, regardless of whether the pilot was or not. The first briefing was scheduled for 0800 and I was careful to make sure that I was there in plenty of time. The briefings were run with military precision and would start on time whether I was there or not.

The first flight would entail me riding with an experienced formation pilot and watching/learning how the book knowledge worked in actual application. This was a welcome relief to me. Riding along and watching the signals and experiencing the correct responses without having to devote any energy or attention at all to operating the airplane was exactly what I needed for it all to come together in my head. What I found is that all of the various signals in the books can be distilled down to just five or six fundamentals, and just like the various entries to your home airport, you can narrow down the decision tree you will have to follow to decode a signal to just a few options.

As we headed back to the airport, I kind of impressed myself by thinking ahead (and make no mistake, formation flying is all about anticipating what’s going to happen next rather than reacting to direction from the formation leader, so this brief flash of brilliance was a good thing) and predicting what formation change would happen next and what the signal for that change would be. This, more than anything, helped me to get over the fear that I was going to be unable to grasp the concepts in time for the next flight when I would be flying the airplane.

Given that my job on that flight had been to pay attention and learn, learn, learn, I considered the mission to be a resounding success. I was now far more aware of what to expect when it came time for me to fly in just an hour or so, and that was to some degree a comfort to me. That said, I was by no means calm about the impending leap from rider to driver. The briefing was at 1000, and by this time I felt like I had a pretty good idea as to what was going on. I understood everything that was briefed, and there's a lot to be said for that. Since this was my first flight, we briefed that rather than the normal formation takeoff (which entails two airplanes taking off side-by-side on different sides of the runway, an idea I found to be particularly frightening) we would takeoff one at a time at five second intervals and I was assigned an experienced formation pilot to ride along with me as a mentor/bacon-saver.

After the very detailed briefing outlining what we would be doing and when, we headed for the airplanes. This is where my nerves really took over and caused some basic mistakes. For example, we had briefed that the initial check-in on the radio would be on our assigned in-flight frequency, but I dialed in the tower frequency instead. At the end of the runway we lined up and did our run-ups, and here came strike two: I still had my flaps down. Normally this is something I never forget, but with all of the other things running through my head I was becoming somewhat overwhelmed.

We lined up for takeoff with me on the left side of the 150’ wide runway and Lead on the right. The five second spacing on takeoff didn't really turn into the reprieve I had expected, though. With full fuel and a runway that's uphill in both directions (they didn't lop quite enough off of the middle of the mountain, in my opinion, and the runway has a notable crest in the middle) I just couldn't keep up with Lead. I finally dragged my reluctant plane into the air and started my turn to the left to join up with Lead. The way this is supposed to work is that I would position Lead in my canopy such that his vertical stab was lined up on his opposite wing, but I had a couple of problems doing that. First of all, he was so far away by that time (and understand, it was my responsibility to tell him that I couldn't keep up - I just didn't do it) that I couldn't really see him clearly enough to ensure that I had the proper line. The second thing was that if I banked tighter in order to turn more inside of his turn, he dropped out of sight below the cockpit sill. All in all, it was a terrible rejoin, and I believe at one point I came awfully close to going belly-up to lead, which is a pooch-screwing formation flying sin of the highest order.

We eventually caught up and I had my first experience in trying to hold the proper line. In RV formation flying, there is an imaginary line running through the outside aileron hinge on the wing up and through the propeller spinner. If you have the aileron hinge lined up properly with the spinner, you are correctly positioned in two dimensions: forward/backward and up/down. It’s much like being on the correct radial line of a VOR without DME equipment, though, in that you don't know how close or far away you are. You can be on the correct line 10 feet away, or you can be on the correct line 100 feet away.

If you are ahead of the line, you are "acute." If you are behind the line, you are "sucked." Which, I might add, isn't as fun as it sounds. You also want to be "stacked down," which means you are below the leader. The absolute worst place to be is "high and acute," because this is a dangerous place indeed. It means you are flying right alongside another airplane, quite close, and if he were to turn in that direction you would both end up having really bad days. I was to find myself precisely in that position a number of times, as it turns out, much to the consternation of my mentor pilot. I struggled to stay on the line. I was high, I was low, I was acute, and I was sucked, and sometimes managed to be a couple of those things simultaneously. Keeping the airplane precisely positioned on the line is a lot like balancing a marble on the tip of a pencil: it doesn't want to be there and it requires constant adjustments to keep it there. These adjustments have to be very precise, quick, smooth, anticipatory, and it pays to remember that a little bit of adjustment goes a long way. It is critical to anticipate the adjustments that need to be made because once the marble starts to fall off of the pencil, it's far too late to catch it.

After what seemed like hours of struggling to maintain my correct position, we headed back to the airfield. As we approached the airport we moved into the echelon formation as expected, and as we headed down the runway I knew to that the signal for a pitch-out would be next. This signal is a wagging finger from the flight lead, followed by a number of fingers indicating the timing of the desired spacing in seconds. In this case it was two fingers. The big event that I would then wait for is the "kiss-off" signal from Lead, upon receipt of which I would smartly move my eyes to "eyes forward," count to two seconds, enter a 60 degree bank to the left, pull in pitch for a 2G turn to the downwind, and immediately pull the power back to idle in order to slow down to 100 mph flap extension speed.

Which is almost exactly what I did, except for one critical omission: I didn't get the power out. Before I knew it, I was caught up to Lead and had to go out wide out on downwind to go past him (going through him not being an attractive option, after all), which really, really isn't what a wingman wants to do. That was strike three (if you don't count various other indiscretions of lesser magnitude - those were fouls, I suppose) and beyond that, I was now high and fast in the pattern. This might be a good time to mention that one of the things that I had feared the most in the days and weeks leading up to this moment was that I would blow the landing with a knowledgeable RV pilot on board, and boy-howdy did I ever find myself well positioned to do exactly that. As it turns out, though, the actual landing wasn't so bad. Granted, that wasn’t much to hang my hat on in comparison to the botched pitch-out and the other sins, but it was something.

Every formation flight ends with a debrief. The debrief is an essential element of formation flying, and it is the absolutely perfect time to find someplace to store your ego out of sight for awhile. Formation flying is serious business, and if you’re too thin-skinned or too wrapped up in the ego of it all, formation flying really isn't for you. Brutally honest, constructive criticism and no-holds-barred analysis of your performance is the order of the day, and it is the only way to improve. And no matter who you are, or what you've flown, or how long you've been doing it, there is always something that can be improved. Part of the attraction of formation flying in the first place is similar to the most addictive aspect of golf: it is a beautiful thing to see when done perfectly but a really ugly thing when done poorly, and perfection is impossible to attain. Also like golf, it rewards you when you are successful, and it punishes you when you are not. The phrase "even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then" is applicable here, albeit a better phrase might be "even Dave Gamble finds the line now and then." And, just as in golf, success is fleeting. You're only as good as your last shot.

In debrief we talked about the few occasions on the flight that I had actually managed to get myself on the proper line, and the far more plentiful times that I hadn't. We talked about my debacle of a pitch-out, we talked about the slow rejoin after I bogged the takeoff, and we talked about a bunch of other stuff. Lead, taking into consideration that this was my first hop, told me that it was an impressive performance. I gotta tell ya, that was worth a million bucks to me.

There were two more flights scheduled for the remainder of the day, but I only made one of them. The second flight introduced more advanced topics such as formation takeoffs (my attempt at a formation takeoff made my takeoff on the first flight look stellar by comparison), trial formation (SCARY!), and an increased stress on proper communication technique. I survived the flight, but at the cost of my last ounce of nerve and energy. Not considering myself to be up to making a third flight, I begged off and pushed the plane back into the hangar.

As I calmed down and reflected on the day, I realized that despite all of the stress and anxiety, I had had a great time. I can’t remember a more emotionally significant and satisfying weekend in my 25+ years of flying. My Private Pilot check ride? Yeah, that was a big day 9 years in the making. The IFR check ride? Yeah, that was ok, but for some reason it felt like more of a continuing education class than a major accomplishment. I won’t say that formation flying has changed my life or anything like that, but it did open my eyes to how challenging and rewarding that type of flying is, and I will never see the large Oshkosh formations the same way again.

Can Ohio winter weather get any weirder??

They have this weather phenomenon here in Central Ohio that they call a Wintry Mix. Basically, it means you're screwed. Take the worst possible winter precipitations such as ice, snow, freezing rain, sleet, snow on top of ice, ice on top of snow, etc. and throw it at us for both the morning and evening commute and you have it: the Wintry Mix.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I checked the DUATS forecast for tomorrow, myself being the eternal optimist and hoping that I might do some flying over the weekend. Here it is, in all of its Wintry glory:

wind 070° at 10 knots, visibility 1/2 mile, snow, freezing fog, 500 feet overcast.

Are you effing kidding me?? Freezing Fog??!?!?!? [holding_head_in_hands]What will they think of next?[/holding_head_in_hands]

I soooo need to move to New Mexico. They get snow there, of course, but snow in infinitely preferable to the Wintry Mix.

Looks like another weekend of cleaning the basement...

Really, I can hardly wait. Doesn't that look like wonderful fun??

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The cure for flying anxiety: practice and diligence

The Weather-out-the-Window(tm) forecast this morning was a rare January treat: clear blue skies and winds below 9 knots. Still a little chilly in the high 20's, though. But still... it turns out that I wasted two weeks of vacation hoping to get a chance to fly when all I had to do was wait until today. Not that I didn't find other ways to occupy my time, mind you. I have a Nintendo Wii, after all.

Co-pilot Rick was out of town today and I've found that I enjoy traveling to places a lot more when I don't go alone, so I was at a bit of an impasse with regards to where to fly. When weather like this crops up, though, you have to fly, if for no other reason than to amortize the hourly cost down to something at least remotely reasonable. You almost feel obligated to fly on a day like today. So, in lieu of a sightseeing or visiting trip, I decided that I might just spend a little time practicing takeoffs and landings. As we get deeper into the winter, these opportunities will become increasingly rare. Knowing the dreadful weather that we will suffer through for the next 90 days, even the birds got into a little formation flying:

(Better in HighDef, so click the HD button and follow the link)

With the decision of a practice flight made, a gap opened in my morning schedule. While I prefer an early departure on a day trip, I can comfortably wait until later in the day for a local flight. With time in hand and a healthy appetite, the morning would instead be filled with a visit to the Golden Corral buffet where I periodically partake in what I call the Meat Medley. Sausage patties, sausage links, polish sausage, bacon, corned beef hash, and ham, all on one stuffed-to-the-edges plate. My doctor's wallet tingles in anticipation of my inevitable coronary treatments every time I do this. To appease him, I bypass (get it?) the sausage gravy.

That's a lot of extra weight to be carrying around in the airplane, so a visit to the reading room is a prerequisite before leaving for the airport. As I was perusing the pages of the January 2009 AOPA Pilot magazine, part of my mind was focused on the upcoming flight. As I've grown older, I've noticed that I do a lot more of a cost/risk vs. benefit analysis than I used to. For example, today I was balancing the risk (slight as it may be) of flying against the benefit that would accrue from the flight. Although the net result would be identical, there's just something surpassingly tragic about dying on an 18 mile flight over to MadCo for some practice landings as opposed to, say, a cross-country trip from Ohio to New Mexico. I find that I have quite a bit more anxiety about flying than I did when I was younger, sometimes leading to thoughts of quitting it entirely.

At just the moment I was having these disturbing and uncomfortable thoughts, I turned the page of the magazine and found Rod Machado's article "The Middle-aged Aviator." It wasn't so much the title that caught my eye, it was the first sentence:

"Over the years, I've heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45 to 60 years) who gave up flying because of a sudden onset of anxiety."

The timing was eerie! Rod goes on to suggest that

"the most likely cause has something to do with the emotional baggage a pilot accumulates with age. I'm speaking of baggage caused by the unhealthy focus on a pilot's own mortality, which may result from obsessing over aviation accident data."

He notes that there can be, and are, many other causes for this increasing trepidation before expanding on the issue of emotional baggage. Basically his point is that by the time you reach middle age, you've been around long enough to have read about, heard about, or seen enough fatal accidents that it begins to wear on your self confidence.

This is true, of course, as can be seen in a pilot's normal reaction to news of an accident, which is to try to figure out how the poor guy screwed up. After all, we know that we would never make the same mistakes ourselves. But eventually the number of his-number-was-up cases begins to abrade away that mental comfort blanket and we begin to realize that yes, it could happen to us. We consider what that would mean to those that depend on us, and we begin to question whether or not we have the right to take the risk, no matter how small. We ask ourselves whether it is selfish of us to fly purely for recreation. It's not like our flying is paying the bills, after all. Actually, the opposite is true: that's an in-ground pool and a nice boat we're flying around in, and the additional cost of a nice car payment going to the necessities of hangar and insurance.

I was able to work the risk/benefit equation in my favor, though, by reminding myself that this was to be a practice flight. That definition did nothing to reduce the risk side of the equation in the short term, but the increased benefit was obvious. Rod makes a point in his article that the cure for this anxiety is for the pilot to have faith in himself. He stresses that the middle-aged pilot has advantages in wisdom and self-awareness over his younger self, and he managed to survive those years, right? The ability to introspectively assess our capabilities and balance them appropriately with what we know to be our weak spots should be used as a strengthening agent for our confidence rather than to erode our faith and will to fly. Reflecting back on my performance the last time I flew, I knew that I needed more practice and that having a good practice session would increase my confidence and knock back some of the tension and anxiety that was bothering me.

So, my personal weight & balance suitably adjusted and a good plan in mind, I headed to the aerodrome. As I was pulling Papa out of the hangar, I had an opportunity to think about what had happened the last time I flew that caused me to forget to raise the flaps before takeoff. I remember coaching myself to be diligent and methodical with the preflight because it had been a month since I'd flown and a layoff like that makes a bug difference in my competence. Even so, I ended up getting distracted by another plane waiting on the taxiway as I diligently and methodically blocked his way to his hangar. At the point when I usually raise the flaps prior to taxiing, I was busy scooting out of his way and got knocked out of my normal rhythm.

Today was a little different: there was no one around but me and Papa. It was still right around freezing, so not a whole lot of folks were keen on hanging around the airport. It was the kind of cold that isn't prohibitive for being outside, but it does cause you to consider skipping certain aspects of the preflight, most notably the part where I get down on the pavement to inspect the metal hinge pins that hold the lower cowl in place. There are two pins, each holding a side of the cowl separated by the exhaust pipes. The wires have a habit of vibrating out of position, thus leaving the cowl not fully attached to the rest of the airplane. I use a couple of twists of safety wire wrapped around the ends of the hinges to hold them together where they meet. That keeps either of them from backing out.

Rod Machado may be a humorous writer, but he's also a very wise aviator. As I asked myself WWRMD (What Would Rod Machado Do), the answer was obvious: no matter how cold and uncomfortable it may be, he would get down there and look at those hinge wires. So I did. Only to find that the safety wire had apparently broken on Tuesday when I flew up to Lima. One of the hinges was fully backed out and the side of the cowl that it was responsible for retaining was hanging loose. I crawled out from under the plane, went back into the hangar for a tie wrap (which I think will work better than safety wire), and replaced and secured the hinge. Thanks, Rod!

Everything else went fine. The tower cleared me to runway 4, where I would be facing a 9 knot wind from the east. That equated to a bit of a right crosswind component, probably just enough to counteract the normal left turning tendency on takeoff. The flaps were confirmed to be fully retracted (although I did find that I had taxied all the way out there without the nav and strobe lights on - D'oh!) and everything else checked out OK. The takeoff was much better than the last couple I've made, mostly because my feet are back in tune with the timing and were ready to adjust their movements when the tailwheel lifted off the runway and the rudder took over as the directional control. That's always a little bit of an adjustment, but when my feet are rusty, it typically results in a bit of a swerve.

The proof is in the landings, though. I made two at MadCo, and both were very good. It's no accident that MadCo has a runway that faces directly into the eastern wind we had today; I selected it as a practice location for today for that reason exactly. Still, even a 9 knot direct headwind can cause problems for me if it is gusty, but it was pretty steady today. Both landings were gentle greasers. I'm sure Rod would emphatically agree with me when I say that nothing, nothing will increase an anxious middle-aged pilot's self confidence than a back-to-back pair of excellent landings.

By the time I got back to Bolton, any vestiges of anxiety had been purged from my system. I made another fine landing, as if to do so was the norm rather than the exception. The only wrinkle came when the tower cleared be off of the runway with

"Turn left Alpha-4, taxi to park, monitor ground."

What's missing here? Well, this is the way they used to always do it, but for the last year or so they've been far more specific. We don't just get "taxi to park," we get "Cross Alpha to Alpha-3 to the ramp" or "Taxi to park via Alpha to Bravo." Having become accustomed to the more detailed directions and assuming that they're doing things this way now for a reason, I found myself mildly irked that the directions hadn't been given. This has happened before in another way: sometimes they won't tell me whether I should "monitor ground" or "remain this frequency." It causes me anxiety because I'm not sure what's expected, and a controller in a bad mood has the power to ruin my day if I leave him an opportunity that he chooses to use. So what did I do? I asked. He sounded a bit surprised that I had done so and kind of stammered out a "at pilot's discretion," but I felt better about it.

In fact, much as I suspected, I feel a lot better about everything. I think Rod is right: the best cure for flying anxiety is more flying, with a dose of diligence thrown in. It sure worked for me! Oh, and the tie wrap held fine. I think that might be my new method from now on.