Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Learning to Fly

Well, that's what it felt like, anyway. I was aghast when I looked at my flight log and saw that I had not flown since November someteenth, 2010. I knew it had been awhile, but I had no idea that for the first time in twenty years I had let my VFR currency lapse.

Wait, what? Well, I think the FAA can say it better than I can:
§ 61.57   Recent flight experience: Pilot in command.
(a) General experience. (1) Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, no person may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers or of an aircraft certificated for more than one pilot flight crewmember unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days, and—
    (i) The person acted as the sole manipulator of the flight controls; and
    (ii) The required takeoffs and landings were performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required), and, if the aircraft to be flown is an airplane with a tailwheel, the takeoffs and landings must have been made to a full stop in an airplane with a tailwheel.
Clear as mud, right? Basically it means that the FAA thinks I will forget how to fly an airplane on the 91st day of not doing so. It also says that they're fine with me going out alone and teaching myself how to fly all over again, but they'd prefer that I not risk anyone else's bacon. There's a little wrinkle in there for tailwheel airplanes like mine: the landings have to be to a full stop on the runway. This is as opposed to nosewheel airplanes which are, when compared to tailwheel airplanes, so easy to fly that you only have to show the ability to find the runway and smack into it with two out of the three wheels.

And to some degree, I think they're right. It had been 94 days since I had last flown and I definitely felt something akin to trepidation as I was driving home from work marveling at the fact that it's still the middle of February and the car thermometer was indicating 44 degrees outside. The winds were light out of the south-southeast and there was only a thin layer of clouds at the 10,000' level, far above any altitude that I would be likely to reach if I were to go out and practice a few landings. The tingling of nerves came from the inescapable fact that this was good flying weather and that I really, really needed to get back into the air, whether I felt perfectly secure in my ability to do so or not.

It was, however, by no means a given that Papa would share my desire to fly. Having endured three months of inactivity and bitter cold, there was a chance that I wouldn't even be able to get the engine to start. Although brand new, it was possible that the battery would have lost sufficient charge to crank the engine after sitting idle in the cold weather. There was also a question of logistics: would I be able to even get the plane out, what with all of the RV-12 construction going on?

The latter question was answered first: I was able to navigate Papa out of the hangar without knocking anything over or dinging any parts on either airplane. This begged a follow-on question: would I be able to do the same thing in reverse when I got back?

After the kind of extensive preflight that I do when I haven't flown for awhile (which has more to do with delaying the moment when I will have to bet the farm on my retained ability to actually fly an airplane than it does on distrust of the equipment) I climbed in and settled into the now unfamiliar cockpit environment. Geez, the two open holes where I yanked out the gyros are still there. I haven't installed that Dynon yet?? I spent a few moments reviewing the engine start procedures in my mind, proceeded with them once I was sure I had the order correct, applied just a titch more fuel prime than I would normally, and engaged the starter.

I had worried needlessly.

A strong, hearty crank of two blades and the engine sprang to something passably like life. Like a bedridden patient that's taking his first steps after months of inactivity, there was a little limping and complaining, but within a minute or two everything had smoothed out. I wanted to let the engine loaf along at a low idle for a few minutes anyway, so my usual angst at the delay caused by the GPS having been lobotomized to the degree that it couldn't even tell what day it was didn't lead to the normal hurling of derogatory insults at the smug little box.

While the engine was shaking off the deleterious effects of months-long neglect, I rehearsed my pending communications with the control tower. I've found that it pays to slow my radio tempo down considerably when talking to ATC after any significant gap in my recent experience. If I were to try going from zero-to-sixty like I would normally do, I end up tripping over my words like a lying five year old caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Or a Congressman presented with photographic evidence of marital malfeasance. Either way, it's embarrassing, so I try to avoid it.

All went well, although I was a little curious as to why I would be taxiing to runway 4. Both wind socks were indicating that the prevailing breeze would slightly favor runway 22. I suppose the ultra-sophisticated and high-calibrated electronic gadgetry in the control tower was presenting a more accurate representation of the conditions than the extraordinarily low-tech windsocks. Who ya gonna believe? At a wind speed of four knots and a difference in wind direction wavering between ten to twenty degrees, I figured it wasn't worth making a fuss over, particularly since there was an inbound on the ILS 4 approach. I wasn't going to win that argument, I figured, so why start it?

I spent a little longer on the engine run-up than I normally would, mostly because I wanted the engine to have every opportunity to forfeit the game while we were still safely on the ground, but also because I knew I was going to have to wait for the ILS arrival to either land or go off on the missed approach. All of the cylinders were showing heat on the EGT and the mag drop on both sides was nominal, and the ILS arrival broke off the approach a mile out. There were no more excuses; it was time to try to fly!

The takeoff was a breeze, given the minimal impact of, well, the breeze. We were soon climbing out to the west with Papa screaming skyward at an impressive 1,500 feet per minute and me struggling to get my head around the fact that we weren't still rolling down the runway. Experience quickly kicked in and I went through the transition from takeoff to flying which is simply fuel pump off, lean the mixture, and start paying attention to where we're going. We toodled along at 3,500' at nearly full throttle for the fifteen or twenty minutes that I figured it would take to get the oil heated up enough to burn out any moisture that may have gathered in it and, to be honest, delay the moment when I'd have to again bet the farm on my retained ability to land an airplane.

The moment when the rubber meets the road, if you will.

There's not much to say about the ensuing landings. We were right traffic to runway 4 which meant that I had to be careful not to let the wind get me pushed in too close to the runway or let it push me too far out on the base leg. It took a couple of landings to get over my ground shyness and let the plane descend on the base leg, and it also took those two landings to get over the feeling of the plane traveling very fast in the flare. It also takes a few landings to get used to the RV-6's pitch sensitivity in the flare. With all that said, I thought all four of the landings were acceptable. None were great, but all were satisfactory.

While carefully pushing the Papa back into the hangar, I couldn't helping thinking about how nice it was to feel like a pilot again.


  1. Great narrative - and glad to hear you made it back into the sky. I've only flown once since Nov 9th myself, so I understand the winter non-flying blues.

  2. i'd say from the general lack of invective at the end there, that the plane was put to bed with no damage to either. nice to see old friends have not been forgotten.