Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 7 – Solo!

A new instructor on duty today – Colin McGrath. I tell him my story and explain where I think I’m getting stuck and why. It’s a beautiful day today, blue, clear and hot, but it’s also a Sunday and I worry a little that it will be a busy day for public air experience flights and I might not be able to garner enough flight time to get myself over the line. It’s the last day of my week and I have to leave the next day to head home to Australia. My main instructor to date, Gordon, tells me on Saturday that if I don’t solo today, he will come out early on Monday to give me a couple of flights. It’s a great offer, but I have already accepted that I don’t have to solo in a week. If my time on the course finishes and I haven’t soloed, then I’ll simply continue my training in Australia and elsewhere, having learnt so much at Taupo. I don’t want to pressure myself, because I figure that’s when mistakes might happen – aiming for an arbitrary target and being tempted to try to solo before I’m really ready. I’m not going to fall into that trap.

There’s a slight easterly crosswind today that builds through the day to about 5-10 knots – enough to have to really take into account in working out approach speed. After pulling out the tow plane and gliders, and giving them a thorough DI, we start flying about 11.00 am.

Soon enough, club members (including some private owners) arrive to fly or tinker with their aircraft and members of the public arrive for air experience flights. The old K13, Golf Sierra, is pulled out of the hangar and prepped, so we have three two-seaters flying, as well as two of the club’s single-seat PW5s. A private owner pulls out his gloriously restored K6 as well. After a couple of circuits with Colin, I’m then kept busy fuelling the tow plane, helping with air experience flights (mainly advising front seat passengers not to put their cameras between the control column and their lap, taking their thongs and making sure canopy and brakes are locked before waving them off), as well as recording flights, retrieving gliders when they land long, towing them back to takeoff location behind cars and lots of other chores.

Not much flying time for me it seems and at one point after lunch, the tow plane’s rear tire blows after a landing. At that point I resign myself to the day’s flying being over, but a spare wheel is quickly fitted and we are back in business.

It’s a blue day, meaning no clouds to mark thermals and there’s not much consistent activity. A couple of clouds try to form over paddocks to the west, but they never really develop – too dry I guess. There are some thermals further west to be had from tows over 4,000 feet, but there’s as much sink around as lift. At one point in an air experience flight, Tom A found himself in sink of around 10 knots and thought he’d have to land out! However, he managed to find some lift and got back in business. He also took up a youngish guy who seemed keen for an aerobatics flight (he’d been given a gift voucher), but after his first loop discovered it didn’t suit him at all and wanted to come straight down!

There weren’t too many long flights being taken, there just wasn’t enough lift around. I had an interesting experience when waving off a flight, that taught me a lesson. I’d been careful and thorough in my waving off, making sure I had a good look around to spot approaching aircraft before giving the towplane the signals to take in slack and to go all-out. We were operating off runway two-two, which has a right-hand circuit. Gliders would do their downwind leg on the west side of the field. On this occasion, I had a good look around, gave the signal to take up slack, then all-out, ran the wing, and then noticed the privately-owned K6 on the end of a downwind leg on the east side of the field – doing a left-hand circuit instead of a right-hand one. There was no conflict with the glider taking off, but a couple of minutes later and he might have been on final. I make a mental note to always look more closely at all possible approaches.

Finally, late in the afternoon, when things had quietened down a bit, it’s my turn to fly again. This time, things come together nicely, though I had a nervous start when the crosswind cause a bit of weathercocking on landing. I’d been holding some rudder on final, but on the ground wasn’t quick enough to reverse it on the ground and we veered around a bit – no dramas, but a bit of a confidence shaker at first. The main complication is there’s a bit of sink on the downwind leg and I find myself having to turn to base earlier than normal. I talk Colin through my actions and tell him that because of the slight crosswind/headwind at 10 knots or so, I intend to land at 60 knots instead of the 55 knots normal for this aircraft in the still conditions.

I had been hammering into myself the need to watch the aim point on final and this starts to work as it should. I’m not getting fixated on the boundary fence and I’m more consistent. I find I can see the aimpoint moving, and keep it in the right spot with brakes and stick, while also maintaining a reasonably steady approach speed.

Colin suggests taking some higher tows to be less rushed in the circuit, which helps, though I still find I need to turn in a bit earlier than on previous days.

Finally, Colin says “you didn’t even scare me on that landing” and I know I’ve made some progress.

When Colin then says, “do one more like that and I’ll let you do one by yourself”, I find I’m not dreading the solo flight any more. I do a consistent landing and then Colin climbs out, secures the rear harness and canopy and sends me away by myself. All week I’d felt entirely unready to go solo and even that morning the thought of a solo had frightened me. But now, as I sat behind the tow plane, with no-one behind me, I felt a calm certainty that I could do this.

An amazing feeling came over me as the cable tightened and I began to be pulled along behind the towplane on that flight – the only option open to me now was to fly the plane and land it, myself. I couldn’t bail out, or decide not to go, I had to take control and do the things I’d been trained to do, with nobody to rescue me. However, I knew I could do it!

That flight is still incredibly fresh for me. The glider felt much lighter and moved around more on the tow – it was more lively and more affected by the crosswind. The tuggy wished me luck on the radio and told me when he was beginning his turn. I found the tow fine and I even had time to let out great shouts and whoops of joy and excitement. I was flying this thing by myself – I was doing what I’d come here to do!

I pulled the bung at 2600 feet, called “glider release” and made my immediate climbing turn to the right. Relieved of weight in the rear, I found I had to trim nose back to maintain 55 knots. There was quite a bit of sink on downwind and I tried to hold near 60 knots to try to lose as little height as possible, while doing my downwind checks. I was definitely going to have to turn in early. I judged my turn to base and then almost immediately to final, pulling a little brake out on base and then going to half brake on final. A perfect approach and a nice, short landing. I did it! I pop the canopy, but before I can climb out, Colin is running over with the tow rope. “Have another one” he says and before I know what’s happening, I’ve done my cockpit checks and I’m off again.

This time there’s even more sink on downwind (I release at 2,600 feet again) and I have to turn to base seemingly just past the boundary fence. This is a noticeably shallower approach because I’m lower, and I find I have to put away most of the brake to make my aiming point, going to half brake quite late in the landing. On landing, Gordon is there and tells me he didn’t like that landing too much – shallow. But I’d recognised it and done things about it – however, not having much brake out certainly limits you options.

For a third time I’m hooked up and away, and this time I tell the tuggy I want to go to 2,900 to give myself more time on downwind and take into account the effects of sink. However, after I bung off and start to make a turn towards downwind leg, I find I’m in strong lift off Fletcher’s Mill. “What the hell” I think, and start thermalling. Very soon I’m at 3,000 feet, so I turn to downwind and make a few turns to lose height. Only trouble is, where previously there’d been plenty of sink, now all I find is more lift and halfway down the downwind leg (after a couple of lazy 360s), I’m still at the same height! I actually have to use some brakes downwind to manage my height! I have more room this time turning to base leg and this is a textbook approach. Good angle, half brakes out all the way down and bang on the mark!

At this I’ve had enough for the day. I pop the canopy and climb out elated. Colin and Gordon congratulate me and I fell like I could do anything. It’s an astounding sensation, having flown a plane three times b y myself and here I am standing safe on the deck with a glider in one piece. I’ve done it.

I elect to walk the wing the 800 metres or so back to the hangars and this calms me down a bit. Trudging along I reflect on what I’ve managed and I know I can now become a glider pilot.

Back at the clubhouse, after the usual chores of putting away aircraft and locking hangars, I buy the traditional round of drinks for the bar. Being a Sunday there’s a lot of folk there, but I don’t begrudge a single drink. To my surprise, I’m presented with my A Certificate and badge, which, by completing three safe solo flights, I had qualified for! What a day – I’d known that club rules said that after first solo, the next 6 solo flights had to be preceded by a check flight, so I had expected a fairly long slog from first solo to making my A certificate – but here I’d been able to crack two achievements in the same day!

Day 6 – Seventeen circuits! And great frustration

I really monopolise the aircraft today. A perfect day for circuit bashing. Cloudy, but very stable air with little wind. After a promising start – two good circuits with pretty good landings onto zero-six, things start to go pear-shaped. I’m messing something up in the final approach and one of my landings is pretty heavy. It doesn’t help that there are a few bumps at the end of runway 06 that can punt you back into the air, or give you a shrewd thumps if you hit them early in the landing run. In any case, I was landing short then long. I couldn’t seem to get any consistency. I took a break for a couple of hours to see if I could work out what the hell I was doing wrong. This was a low point for me. Up until today, I thought I had coped with everything that was thrown at me. I had been challenged and frustrated by the aerotow, but I had been able to master it piece by piece. But this problem seemed insurmountable. The more I tried to get it, the worse my landings seemed to be (or rather, when I thought I was controlling things and working it out, I wasn’t).

I could judge my entry into the circuit, manage my speed and height through the downwind leg and identify when to turn to base leg, depending on wind and height, but at this point I was seemingly getting overwhelmed and confused. What I subsequently found I was doing was not watching the aiming point properly to judge my speed and descent. What I was doing was focusing on the boundary fence – not wanting to land on it, my eyes were drawn to that boundary fence and so I was all over the place with brakes, stick and hence speed.

To their credit, my instructors didn’t give up on me, though I nearly gave up on myself. Halfway through the day I took a break and sat on the grass trying to make sense of what was going on and feeling incredibly frustrated with myself. After the break, things didn’t get much better – the problem was consistency in the final approach and landing. Some landings would be good, others would be bad and the instructor would need to prompt me with brakes or speed.

My roundout was actually pretty good but getting there was the real problem.

That night, I slept badly and each time I thought of the next day’s flying I felt a knot almost of dread in my stomach. I questioned whether this was as far as I would get in gliding.

Day 5 – Exercises

Today I fly a circuit with instruments obscured, so needing to judge airspeed and altitude by eye and ear. For the last two days I have been trying to get familiar with the landmarks around the circuit and the look of the ground from different heights, as well as listening to the sound of the wind at around 55 knots (the speed I am flying most circuits in the conditions). My instructor “bungs me off” (his instruments of course not obscured in the rear cockpit – I’d joked with him that I’d had a good look at the instruments in the front on the ground before they were covered up, and I’d memorised them!) and I start my circuit. Afterwards, he told me that my height assessment had been good, but my airspeed was way off – thankfully on the fast side rather than the stalling-potential slow side. I came in for the landing at a blistering 85 knots, instead of the intended 55! It felt okay to me and of course the main thing is we got on the ground safely.

I also reasonably successfully boxed the tow today, getting more control over the glider in the tow. Not much flying today because of the needs of other students (including a guy who soloed with a lovely landing), so we finished with a nice social fly about in the afternoon thermals. We took a high tow, to 4,500 feet, placing us over Mount Tauhara where we hoped the mild westerly may have got the ridge working. It hadn’t to any great degree, but this was another of those flights that reminds me why I’m doing this course. It is a beautiful afternoon, about 5.00 pm, clear as a bell, with Taupo spread out beneath. We work west of the Mount Tauhara ridge and find big lift, which I work to above 5,000 feet. I spot a bright pink skydiving plane (looks like a Fletcher) losing height near Taupo airport and then the instructor spots the skydivers just off our nose. Despite his directions, I can’t see them. There’s a funny thing about spotting things in the air – one observer can see something (an aircraft or a bird for instance) as clear as day, while a second person sees nothing. Many times I’ve looked at a glider in the air, looked away for a second, and then, even when I know where it should be, not been able to pick it up again. The eye’s blind spots, and the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps the eye can’t see, are remarkable when demonstrated this way – I never saw those skydivers.

Gordon suggests, instead of circling more in this thermal, we head north east, along a well-defined cloudstreet – a little quasi cross-country style flying. As we beetle along at 50-55 knots, we have almost constant 2 knots of lift, so we end up, after several minutes of flying past the club and over to the nearby river and timber mill, several hundred feet higher than we started! We land long on runway 22 – a so-called hangar flight. After getting on the ground Gordon closes the brakes and we roll and roll towards the clubhouse and hangars. Gliders really are slippery things, with the brakes in (ie closed) they really don’t want to stop.

End of the day, only three flights and 38 minutes.

Day 4 – more circuits and some progress

Usual routine for day 4. Some classroom revision to go over what I had covered the day before and to identify objectives for today (more circuits, more tows, a spiral dive) and we get out and prep aircraft. The towplane gets fuelled, but when Tom tries to start it, he finds that the previous temporary tug pilot had left the master switch on, with the result that the battery is dead. Takes a while to get it started, and this puts us a bit behind.

I do my first real Daily Inspection (DI) of the aircraft I’ll be flying today (Papa Whiskey) and manage the find two minor faults – a crack on the rear canopy vent rail and a smallish cut on the tailwheel tire, near the rim. Neither are judged enough to ground the glider, but it felt good to find something on such a thorough and methodical DI.

I am flying with Gordon again today. My first two circuits are not real special. My tow still needs work and I get out of position in the first 50 feet. He never has to take over, but I’m working harder than I should be. Anticipating a fair bit and getting back into position, but it’s messy and worrying to me. I’m waiting for aerotow to “click” and it isn’t. On my first landing my approach is okay (it’s still a bit of a mystery as to what is happening and when, especially judging the descent), but for some reason I balloon. Gordon thinks I applied some backward pressure on the stick after the roundout, but I don’t remember doing it. Tom (who as tuggy, had watched the landing from the ground) later said that it had looked excellent until, at the last moment, I had closed the brakes! I don’t remember doing this, but there’s no doubt I did!

In the second tow I’m a lot better, but we bung off very early – at about 700 feet agl, (the tow plane has a problem that needs to be fixed) so we have an abbreviated circuit which is a bit messy – Gordon’s comment “not good”. I’m still not judging descent properly and managing brakes.

After lunch, when the tow plane is sorted out, I have a longer flight with Gordon.

On this attempt I am supposed to box the tow (getting deliberately out of position to the left and right and then moving up and down – showing control of position). I make a royal mess of this. I can get out to the side, but when I try to drop down while out to the right, I can’t hold it out there, and I end up back in line with the tow-plane! A second attempt is no better. More work needed

We thermal for a while, getting up to cloudbase, which is something special – seeing the whispy clouds getting closer and some graying around the cockpit – very cool. I’m happy with my thermalling and so is Gordon. There is a single seater out and we watch as he comes to join our thermals. We cross in front of his nose on our way out to do some stalls but he doesn’t see us. We give him some more room then perform the HASEL check, before trying some stalls. These go well and we follow it with a stall and spin, booting rudder over as the aircraft stalls, but my recovery is almost too quick and the spin (though I let it develop into a full spin, soon becomes a spiral dive. I try another stall off a steep turn, but again I catch it almost too early, but my recoveries are good.

My approach and landing are pretty good (though still requiring some input/advice from Gordon) and this time, on roundout, a gust of wind causes me to balloon – I don’t do anything stupid and we get down fine if a little long. I need to concentrate more on steering with the rudder on rollout.

On my last three circuits my tows get better – with the last one being near perfect (I was concentrating so hard on my upcoming landing that I forgot to be anxious about my tow!). Landings are getting better but still not good enough. My last one it starts to make some sense and I control my descent and speed much better. Some study tonight, and maybe I’ll iron out the kinks tomorrow.

Day three – Circuits

Today I am judged ready for circuits. This is the circuit-bashing I had thought would be the main part of my solo in a week training. However, I have been lucky with the weather and had good thermals almost every flight. Taupo Club has a $15 circuit rate if you bung off in time (ie for a normal circuit). The Club field is 1,550 ASL, so entering the circuit is usually done at 2,500 feet or so. On downwind you call Centennial traffic and announce your intentions (ie Papa Whiskey downwind right hand for zero-six), perform landing checks (straps secure, undercarriage down and locked, flaps set, brakes, a quick cracking open – club members told a story about a pilot who taped up his brakes so rain wouldn’t get in on the ground, then took a flight without a DI, or cockpit checks. Accordingly, he only realised he couldn’t open his brakes when he was on final and really needed them. His was a high performance glider, so he couldn’t easily wash off speed. He sideslipped to slow and ended up ground looping), then check wind direction and speed using the windsocks and turn onto base and final, adjusting brakes as required. Most of my circuits today involved full brakes from base to final, attempting to maintain 55 knots and then half brakes for the landing (full brakes are applied on the ground). This gives you some options in hand – if too high, you can apply more brake to increase your rate of descent, if too low, you can close brakes to reduce rate of descent.

Gliders approach quite steeply, so the first few landings can be disconcerting and everything seems to happen very fast. Today things started to happen slower for me.

At the start of the day I did my first daily inspection (DI) on the aircraft I’d be flying today – Papa Whiskey, the PW-6. I also washed it and the Twin Astir, Mike Echo.

Washing a glider lets you have a really close look at it and you notice the small chips and scratches, the discolorations etc.

After some classroom revision and checking through my A Cert syllabus, we start the circuit bashing. My first two are with Gordon. We started out with a fairly high release to land on 06 – there was little wind, but later a westerly started up so operations were relocated to the far end of the field and off runway 22. My aerotow was much better. I was more relaxed and I was better able to anticipate the tow plane and follow it. Soon after release we found a blue thermal (very blue day today – no clouds to speak of, but it was warm, so there were thermals off ploughed fields and the like) and climbed to about 3350 feet. When the first one ran out I looked for another one in a likely place and found one.

After a couple of stalls, we went into the circuit, with full brakes turning from base to final. Tried to keep to 55, but a slight tailwind had come up, so speed was a little higher at 60 to 65 knots. Landing was okay, but I still don’t clearly understand what I’m doing in the approach – the relationship between height, rate of descent and aiming point. But I suppose this will come with practice.

We followed this with a shorter circuit with a relatively low “bung-off”, then into the circuit, full brakes and half brakes. My control was better, though with a slight balloon at landing – at least I didn’t instinctively slam it down onto the runway.

Next Tom A took me for a few circuits now an alternative tow pilot had turned up (neither the rostered tow pilot not the instructor had turned up). On my first circuit we found some lift after release and did a few turns. He taught me an important thing – applying a little opposite rudder in turns when thermalling, rather than holding on normal rudder towards the turn. This brings the yaw string over to the upper side.

After a little thermalling, we joined the circuit and I had an okay landing – a bit heavy, but I controlled the brakes on the approach to 22.

An immediate second circuit, with me in control and Tom talking when he has to. There is a strongish sidewind by now, so Tom gets me sideslipping. Managing the brake is a bit tricky, and I’m faster at 60 knots than I want to be, but I round-out nicely, a slight bounce on landing and a good rollout. Tom says, another three or so circuits like that and I’ll be ready to solo. However, it will be up to me.

Day two – bittersweet aerotowing and another booming thermal day

I did some revision last night and then was ready to make some more progress today. My instructor is happy with how things are going and feels I have a good chance of soloing this week, mostly because yesterday we had such a long flight, with lots of thermalling, straight and level flight practice, coordinated turns and stall drills etc.

In the morning he partially fills out my A Certificate Training Syllabus form for what I’d covered so far, and identified what things we need to work on today. They are:

  • Use of trim

  • Slow speed handling

  • Stall with brakes out

  • Stall in a turn

  • Spiral dive.

If we can get to them all, we’ll be lucky. We get in the air fairly early and it’s a blue day – warm but with little visible cloud. I first learn how to fuel the tow plane.

We take off (Gordon instructing) in the PW-6 around 11.30 am and the air is smoother. My liftoff is good and my tow is much better today. Gordon never takes control in the tow. He says later he could see me correcting and getting back into position and he never felt he had to take control. I relax a bit and it seems a little easier to follow the tow plane this time.

We get off tow and there’s a little lift about, but it’s patchy with lots of sink and we soon end up planning for a circuit, with Gordon showing me the limits of the Taupo gliding area (Taupo airport is nearby). We turn on, I’m a little fast at 60 knots, and a little out of position, needing a bit of rudder to keep on line, but my round-out is pretty good and we get on the deck without a bounce.

After this, there’s some other people flying in PW and ME including some American tourists who take two flights (one an aerobatic one with lots of stunts) and have a lot of fun, so it isn’t until about 3.30pm before I’m ready for my next flight (I get in plenty of practice waving people off though, including a club member doing some kind of instructor’s training, who takes the Twin Astir ME up for what turns into a long flight (more than 2 hours 10) – we hear him calling up at 6,500 feet, moving to the Christchurch ATC frequency to ask for clearance higher).

In this tow, in much bumpier weather, I’m back to having a pretty ordinary tow. People are telling me that it will just “click”, but I can’t see that happening just yet – only my second day though. Gordon has to take control a couple of times when I get badly out of position and I’m having trouble following the movements of the tow plane and anticipating changes in heading and height.

However, after we release at 5,500, we quickly contact some blue thermal and I get plenty of practice turning and maintaining 45-50 knots while climbing in 2-8 knots. I also experiment with trim and find I can quickly get trimmed for 45 knots (best thermalling speed in this a/c) or for 55 knots for stooging about. We stooge about searching for and finding lift and several times I see ME in the distance or above us. I find I can quickly turn onto a heading, fly pretty straight and maintain constant speed and turn angle pretty well, without having to watch the instruments – in fact the more I look out at the horizon and listen to the wind noise, the easier it is to control. We practice stalls, including high angle stalls, stalls with the brakes out (bang the brakes in quickly, a little nose down, some opposite rudder and everything’s sweet), incipient spins, including deliberate stalls with hard rudder over, and recoveries therefrom and then the more deadly slow speed, low angle stall. For this, I put the plane just above the horizon, let the airspeed bleed off, pull the stick back to simulate “Oh my god, I’m getting low” and then feel what is a pretty mild, mushy stall, which is easily and quickly able to be got under control without much altitude loss. The point of this is to learn the signs of an impending stall and also, to learn that recovery can be quick and relatively painless.

This turns into another epic flight – 50 minutes of wonderful flying, interesting drills and manoeuvres and amazing views. Very bumpy thermals and when we are in them, the plane would be leaping about, the wings being pushed up or down by alternate lift and sink and gusts. There was an amazing sense of the whole sky in turbulent motion and me being tossed around like a leaf, while also riding the bumps in more or less control.

At the end, I had my best landing – this one seemed to have much more time to get set up. I still crowded the base leg a little, but got set up, made the radio call, brakes out, onto final and managed a steady 55 knots all the way to the ground, with a nice roundout. I was happy to hear my instructor say that while there’s an item in the curriculum for bounce recovery on landing, I hadn’t yet bounced!

The guy who had been out in ME came back, to have his landing observed, and after landing, showed how, at height he had tried to have a pee in a bottle, but had not been able to quite manage it and so had wet his pants! All part of gliding I guess…