Saturday, May 23, 2009

Flying: it's not like riding a bike

You do forget how. It's a well recognized fact that pilots need to undergo periodic refresher training to remain as safe as possible in the air. This is true for airline and military pilots that fly complex equipment in a ever-changing and always-challenging environment nearly every day, and it is true for people like me that fly a much simpler airplane in conditions of my choosing. For the professionals, both the government and their employers (which are, of course, the same thing for the military folks) decree what the recurrent training cycles are and what will be taught. Far more often than not, that type of training is performed in very sophisticated simulators. Two obvious reasons for training in a simulator rather than an actual airplane are cost (fuel and lost revenue from taking a jet off the line) and safety. You can read about a recent example of this type of training in this post by Lynda, a Cessna Citation X pilot:

Today was my first day of STEP training. STEP stands for Scenario Based Training and Education Program. Instead of doing the same old instrument approach proficiency practice and single engine and other emergency procedures, the company has determined that a lot of risk involved in our everyday operations involves threat and error management. In other words, recognizing the first link in a chain of events that may lead to an incident or accident. Instead of taking a checkride, the instructor evaluates our SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) knowledge and decision making skills.

As you might expect, things are a bit easier for those of us flying smaller planes, although maybe not for the reasons you might guess. It would be tempting to say that we fly in a less challenging environment, but that isn't necessarily true. We fly at lower levels and have to deal with weather that jets fly over, we typically fly as the only pilot, we normally don't have the systems redundancy and anti-icing protection of a "big" plane, and we don't have the support of an entire room full of dispatchers and meteorologists watching out for us. And, as noted, we don't always have the depth of training. So, if it's not the comparative difficulty that allows us to fly without the ever-watchful eye of check pilots and FAA inspectors looking over our shoulders, what is it?

Well, I can only guess that it's the fact that we aren't hauling around dozens or hundreds of paying customers. It's not that we're lower risk (and statistics will glaringly show that we most emphatically are not lower risk), it's that the cost of an accident isn't as high. It's high enough, of course, but not as high as that of an airline disaster.

The FAA has mandated that a private pilot must have an hour of air instruction and an hour of ground instruction with a certified flight instructor no less than once every two years. This is known as a Biennial Flight Review, or BFR. Mine was due by the end of May. BFRs are very low stress if you're an active and current pilot, but those that are not fortunate enough to fly as regularly as I do often view them as being another check ride and the first one was tough enough, thank you. I view them as a chance to learn a few new things about my airplane. This is similar to Lynda's employer's view that there is benefit in practicing things that you don't do every day.

I would be flying with Greg, a guy I've known from way back when I was just out of renting and into my first flying club. He's been building an RV-6 for as long as I've known him and I thought he'd be a good choice for working with me on my BFR. I'd get a good lesson and he'd get some seat time in the same type of airplane that he will someday be flying.

It's always fun to have RV builders ride with me - every single one of them goes over the plane with a fine tooth comb looking at how the parts that they've assembled in their shops all go together to make a functioning airplane. Every single one has a specific part that they may have had trouble building and they want to see how it looks on my plane. And the biggest thing? I believe that every single one of them goes back to their shop newly inspired to get their RV done so that they too can enjoy the experience of flying such a well balanced airplane. So, as long as I didn't totally screw up the flying, it was a win-win.

I like having my BFR due in May because by the time it rolls around, the weather has been good enough for at least enough flying for me to be demonstrably proficient. I wouldn't like my chances as much in February, for instance. Flying is flying to Papa, so for him it was just another romp around the local area. He did me proud in front of Greg, starting up with a nice rumble after only half a blade. You'd almost believe he was showing off!

The BFR requirements stipulate an hour of air work but do not define what must be covered in that hour. That makes sense when you consider the huge variety of different flying situations you will find with private pilots. While NetJets can reasonably assume that Lynda will be flying in conditions and equipment nearly identical to her peers and tailor her training accordingly, private pilots are like snowflakes and finger prints: no two are alike. Some pilots will be rusty at the basic skills and need to concentrate on landings and takeoffs. Others may fly every day, but need practice in seldom visited flight regimes such as slow flight or even stalls. The CFI and the pilot work together to decide what they should concentrate their efforts on.

I expressed to Greg that my number one area of concern with regards to the type of flying that I do and the type of airplane that I do it in is landing after an engine failure. The RV-6 has a relatively short, stubby wing and my perception has always been that it would come down like the price of Chrysler stock if the fan ever stopped turning. I usually use my BFRs to practice simulated engine out landings. We flew over to MadCo where I made a normal landing (well, not entirely normal: it was a greaser), then took off again and stayed in the landing pattern.

At pattern altitude and just past midfield, I had 120 mph in the bank. I pulled the throttle back to idle and glided it in. I usually keep the flaps up until I'm established on final and it appears that I won't be landing ignominiously short of the runway. This usually keeps me too high on the approach, but that's considered by most pilots to be a superior situation to be in over the alternative. It's easy to lose altitude sans engine, harder to find it. If the flaps still don't get us down fast enough, a forward slip will finish the job.

On the first landing, I didn't get low and slow soon enough. Had it been an actual emergency, we would still have been able to get onto the runway and stopped before the end, but since it was just practice and I still had the option of using the engine available to me, I went around to see if I could do better with another try. I did, and scored my second greaser of the day.

With the landing practice done, we climbed back up to do some air work. I mentioned to Greg that stalls are not only somewhat abrupt in an RV, they are also very sensitive to the rudder. There's a phrase that describes an uncoordinated stall in an RV: spin entry. Stall it with the rudder hanging out in the breeze and you will soon find yourself heading in the opposite direction and staring at the ground through eyes as big as tennis balls. And by 'soon' I mean 'RIGHT NOW!' Because of this, I normally recover from my practice stalls at the first sign of buffet which, as it turns out, in an RV is concurrent with the signature precipitous drop of the nose that defines a stall. Greg, God bless him, wanted to know what happens if you actually hold it in the stall. Me? I couldn't care less. Well, that's my excuse for not knowing, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. I can understand why you might think that my reluctance to find out what happens has a little more to do with a case of huevos pequeños on my part than an actual disinterest in the topic, but I couldn't possibly comment on that.

In any event, now I know: hold the stick back after putting Papa in a stall and he will buck like a enojado caballo. He shakes his nose up and down and kicks back through the control stick. But he's honest about it: as long as you keep the nose centered, he won't drop off on a wing. Which is good because it takes a long time to cram those tennis ball sized eyes back into your head.

Our hour was up so we headed back to Bolton. I had hoped to go three for three on the perfect landings, but didn't. It wasn't a bad landing, mind you. It was the routine tiny little bounce that's so common for me. But still, a perfect trifecta would have been nice.

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