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What I Learned in Pilot Training: Hypoxia

I realized I have not been holding up my end of the bargain when it comes to all of the things I am learning at pilot training, so I am going to do my best to start to remedy that.

For the first two weeks of training the vast majority of what we talked about was the physiological aspects of flying airplanes.  I talked about some of this in my last post, but there is one area that I feel warrants its own separate discussion, and that is hypoxia.

A quick Google search tells us that hypoxia is a “deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues”.  This definition is pretty general, but that is because the effects of hypoxia can vary dramatically.  That is one of the scary things about hypoxia is that it is different for everyone, so there is no way to give anyone a surefire way to know it is happening.

Maybe even scarier is that some of the potential symptoms can be exact opposite.  Some people will feel euphoric, or extra happy.  Other people will feel sick and miserable.  Some of the other symptoms are tingling in the extremities, headache, feeling warm, decreased visual acuity, cyanosis (blueness in the lips), and loss of mental capacity.

The last one may be the biggest threat to pilots, but if you are struggling to think clearly, how likely are you to notice it?  Your brain isn’t working well, but somehow it is supposed to realize that it isn’t working well?

As part of our training, we go into an altitude chamber to experience the effects of hypoxia, and determine what our own individual symptoms are.  It is invaluable training and helps you to recognize how you respond so that should it ever happen in flight, you are more likely to notice it.  To add to the challenges of hypoxia, your symptoms can change over time.

When I did the altitude chamber in navigator school, my only symptom was a very slight headache across my forehead that took forever to appear.  When I did it this time it was tingling in my fingers and feeling warm.  You may notice that most of these symptoms are things that could happen for dozens of different reasons.  Lots of people get headaches when they fly because they are dehydrated or a little sick, or because they had too much fun at the bar the night before.

Which brings me to some of the different reasons that you can experience hypoxia.  There are four general types of hypoxia: histotoxic hypoxia, stagnant hypoxia, hypemic hypoxia, and hypoxic hypoxia

Histotoxic hypoxia is the type that would be created by having too much fun at the bar the night before.  Substances like alcohols, narcotics, and other drugs impact the cell’s ability to accept oxygen and even though there may be enough in the air, it can’t get into the cells to do work.

Stagnant hypoxia happens when the blood is not flowing to the tissues properly.  In the military world this is usually driven by pulling G’s which causes the blood to pool in the lower extremities and thus not flow to your upper body.  It can also happen when you get cold and your circulation decreases.

Hypemic hypoxia is similar to histotoxic, but instead of the cells not accepting oxygen, it relates to the blood’s inability to carry oxygen.  In aviation this is most often caused by the inhalation of carbon monoxide either from a bad heater, or even just the exhaust on the ground before you get in and takeoff.

Hypoxic hypoxia is when the air simply does not have enough oxygen for your to breathe, which happens at higher altitudes.  Clearly an issue for flying an airplane.  It is also the most common type of hypoxia experienced in aviation.

We can all agree that hypoxia is a bad thing as it prevents us from thinking clearly and from using our body to safely operate an airplane.  So what can we do to prevent it, or recognize it when it does happen?

First, prevention because it is ALWAYS better to prevent a bad situation that it is to deal with it after it arises.  Being physically prepared to fly is the simplest way to prevent hypoxia, and a host of other issues.  That means that if you have not gotten enough rest, or you have been feeling sick, or you are hung over, or drunk, then you should not be flying.  We all want to fly as much as possible, but you have to know your limits and never cross them.  Even in the military we regularly talk about how there are almost no flights that cannot wait until another day if the crew is not physically fit to fly.

Another part of prevention is ensuring that you have the proper equipment for the flying you will doing.  If your flight is going to be mostly around sea level hypoxic hypoxia is not very likely, but if you have a broken exhaust system, or a cabin heat system that is not working properly, you put yourself at very real risk of hypemic hopxia, and that is every bit as dangerous.  Hypoxia is not only a matter of flying at high altitude!

Generally speaking we talk about oxygen deficiency starting at around 10,000 feet MSL.  So if you are planning to fly anywhere near that altitude for very long you need to have the right equipment.  That could be a pressurized cockpit, or it could be supplemental oxygen.  If you will be flying at night, some people push that altitude as low as 5,000 feet MSL.  Once again, everyone is different, and has different tolerances.  If in doubt bring along the extra oxygen because it may save your life.

I realize that going to an oxygen chamber is not realistic for most people, nor is it really necessary for someone cruising around in a 172, but if you get the opportunity I would highly recommend it.  That being said, there is still plenty of education and experience you can get to learn more about the effects of hypoxia and how it can affect you.

My only experience with hypoxia, other than in the controlled environment of an altitude chamber, was actually on a hiking trip.

I was climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan, which only goes up to about 12,300 feet, not that much above 10,000.  As we got to the summit it was rainy and cold and I was miserable and I had a headache.  But, I didn’t even realize it until we were on our way back down and I started to feel better.  Sure I recognized that I was tired, but it wasn’t until I headed lower and started to lose my symptoms that I realized I had even had symptoms.

The odds of this happening in aviation are not very high, at least if it has become a critical issue.  If the symptoms are minor then descending may be enough to clear your head and fix your symptoms, but descending may not always be an option, and if it has to do with poor equipment, it is not likely that the equipment will just fix itself.

So how do you recognize that you are having issues?  The key to this is not waiting for extra signs.  At the first indication that you may be hypoxic you need to take action.  Some people can go hours with symptoms before it becomes life threatening, but for others the symptoms may come on and only minutes later the person will be incapacitated.  So if you even think there is a small chance you might be hypoxic, try to fix it immediately.

If you are fortunate enough to be flying with someone else, ask them how they are feeling, or if they see anything different with you. Sometimes just bringing it up will key the whole crew off that something is not right and you may save everyone.  Maybe it is just you having an issue though, and they can help you remedy the situation and get back to normal.  The point is to not keep it a secret if you don’t feel right.

Many people do most of their flying alone so what can they do?  In many cases, you can still tell someone, whether that be ATC or anyone else that may be on frequency with you.  Again, just mentioning that something doesn’t feel right can help key off your mind that something isn’t right and can help you down the path to fixing it.

If there is legitimately no one around then just say it out loud to no one.  The brain is pretty amazing and just vocalizing it may be enough.  Most importantly, if you are by yourself, don’t hesitate to take some action if you feel even the slightest possibility that something isn’t right because you have no idea how far you are from just passing out.

This ended up being way longer than I expected, but I would argue that I didn’t even scratch the surface on the topic, or at least on aerospace physiology.  There are people whose entire career is in that field.

Hopefully what I have done is given you some things to think about when you fly, and encouraged you to spend some extra time thinking about how your body is performing when you fly.  We spend a lot of time checking on the plane, and our equipment but most of us don’t take enough time to check on our physical ability to fly.

It doesn’t have to be a huge drawn out process, but even taking the time to stop before you step to the plane and just ask yourself how you are feeling may be what saves your life.  I would also encourage you to spend some time learning more about aerospace physiology.  That could be through articles, or YouTube, or seminars, or other classes.  No matter where it comes from, understanding how our bodies work when they are in the unnatural state of flying will only make you a better aviator.

October 12, 2019 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

My First Week at Air Force Pilot Training

It’s been almost a month since I last posted, and I can’t believe how fast that month has gone.  I feel like it has been much longer with everything I have done since then.

It was kind of nice to have a little bit of free time with my family for a couple of weeks after we got here, though free time is probably the wrong word.  It was nice to not have work requirements because I was able to help my wife get the house unpacked, take the kids to dance and swim lessons, and enjoy a couple of lunches with my Queenie before my life revolves around flying for the next year.

It makes me laugh a little as a type that because many people would probably say my life has always revolved around flying, but it had increasingly become more about desk work before I left.  It is super nice to just be learning about flying again, though I know that will change again when I get home, and that’s okay.

So what is the first week of pilot training like?

In a word, fast paced.  (okay, that is two words)

The first day was just briefings to get us ready for the year ahead and what the policies and procedures of the unit are.  Then starting the next day we were right into full days of academics.  With the pilot shortage they are trying to get through as many people as they possibly can.  That has led to them shortening the course by a few weeks by deleting some of the topics they deemed non-essential.  I won’t complain about getting done here sooner and getting on to C-130 training.

In the first week we have been mostly focusing on aerospace physiology, which is probably one of the least studied topics that has immense impact on effective flying, if that makes sense.  We covered topics ranging from hypoxia to G-tolerance to egressing from the aircraft.  While none of the information was new to me with my background, it was a good reminder of the importance of these topics.  It was also eye-opening to some of the guys that don’t have a background in aviation.

If we needed a reminder that this is not a take your time kind of course, our first test was a week to the day after we started and covered the full range of aerospace physiology topics.  I was happy to have done well and crossed the first hurdle in training.  I was confident about the whole thing because, as I said, none of the information was really new to me, but there is still always that little bit of fear that I won’t give something the time it deserves and I will blow it.

No time for a break though as after the test we were right back into class and CAI’s.  It is worth explaining the different ways in which we get instruction in formal courses like this.  There are basically three different methods of training: Instructor Based Training, hands-on training, and Computer Based Training.  My entire career the computer based training has been referred to as CBTs, but here it is referred to as CAI’s because why leave something alone when you can change the name for no reason.

My favorite training, like most people, is the hands-on training, but they actually have a pretty good system set up here.  Generally speaking, you spend some time learning about new topics on the computer, then you have a class with an instructor to clarify and expand on the topic, then you get into some sort of simulator, or part task trainer, or eventually the actual aircraft, to bring the whole thing together.

Now that we are mostly done with aerospace physiology, we actually have to do the altitude chamber on Monday, we have started to get into the aircraft systems of the T-6 which has been super interesting.  While we did utilize the T-6 in Nav school, that was 8 years ago, and we are going a lot more in-depth than we did back then because now I will be in control of the plane and not just sitting in the back seat.

If that sounds like quite a bit for a first week, it is, but the pace only quickens from here.  Monday will mostly be taken up by the altitude chamber, then Tuesday we have our first sims, and Wednesday is our next test.  From there it just keeps going, and I am loving every minute of it.  I’m not worried about scheduling people for stuff, or tracking training, or writing memos, or going to meetings, I am completely focused on learning to fly, and it is awesome.

It really hit me this week just how blessed I am to be here.  I am 37 years old, when the age limit was 30 when I was selected.  I started this journey to become a pilot 16 years ago when I enlisted, and now I am here.  Don’t let small hiccups or speed bumps get in the way of you getting where you want to be.

To be clear, there are some things that there is nothing you can do about, like being blind or something of that nature.  But, if something like money, or age, or scores, or even just doubt are holding you back, then don’t give up.  You can find a way, and you can get there, just don’t give up, and ask for help.

There are doubters and haters out there, but there are also a ton of people out there that would love to help and return the favor for the help they received.  So reach out to anyone and everyone and figure out how to make it happen.

If you have any questions about the stuff we are learning or how you can get here too, let me know and I would be happy to help you.

September 14, 2019 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Short Notice Off to Pilot Training

Well, sometimes life comes at you faster than expected. I haven’t had the chance to write much recently because I had to quickly move across the country.  A lot has happened in the last three weeks.

Since I started waiting for UPT class dates a few months ago, I have religiously emailed the lady that is in charge of assigning class dates every single week.  She never responded, nor did I expect her to as I know how busy she is, but I continued to ask in the hopes that a class date would come available.

Then three weeks ago I went into work on an off day and sent my typical email asking if there were any dates available and thanking her for all that she does to support us.  About five minutes later I got a call from Maryland on my cell phone and I was just about to ignore it, assuming it was a solicitor, but decided I better answer just in case.

Sure enough it was the lady who gives out class dates.  She asked when I was ready to go, to which I responded, immediately.  She told me there was a date available but that I would need to leave in about 10 days to get there and get in-processed.  This was exactly what I had been hoping for, so I jumped on it.

I had to call my wife and give her the good news, to which she freaked out a little because that meant we had five days to pack the house, and five more to drive all the way to Del Rio, TX.

Since this is not a moving blog I will spare you the boring details of driving a long Uhaul truck 1600 miles across the hottest part of America in the middle of August.  Let’s just say it was hot, and not overly exciting.

After four days of driving we arrived at Laughlin Air Force Base.

It was the weekend when we arrived, but Monday morning I was greeted by the sound of airplanes flying overhead and I felt right at home.  Everyday since I have to pinch myself a little when I see the T-6s, T-38s and T-1s flying overhead.  I can’t believe that I am actually here and about to embark on the dream I started ten years ago.

There is still a lot to do, but I will get into more of the details of what I’m doing here soon.

August 19, 2019 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

My Future In Aviation

If you read my string of posts the last couple of weeks you would think I would know better than to try to make plans for my career, and in particular flying.  Nothing in my career has gone the way I intended, but it has all worked out.  That being said, I figured I would put my plans out there because you never know when the right person to help you get there may stumble across what you write.

The first order of business is obviously getting dates for pilot training.  I will go into more detail about the steps of pilot training as it gets closer, and as I go through, but the basic detail is that you spend about 13 months at a pilot training base and you leave with your pilot wings.  The three pilot training bases for the Air Force are Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, TX; Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, and Columbus AFB in Columbus, MS.

Each of the locations has good and bad about it so I am perfectly fine going to any of them.  My priority is to get started as soon as I can because I am not getting any younger, and the rest of my plans are going to take some time.

I should also mention for those keeping score at home that many people have to attend Initial Flight Training before going to pilot training in the Air Force.  I will not have to do this since I already have my PPL.  It is essentially a crash course in flying like you would receive at many flight schools, but done in the way the Air Force does it.  For pilots you go a little ways beyond your solo, but only about halfway to actually getting your PPL.  Navigators only get about 14 hours and spend more time on the navigation side.

While I am in pilot training my plan is to write or make videos everyday during training.  Based on time constraints I don’t expect most of them to be lengthy, simply the things I am learning as I go.  Now, I know that most people reading this are thinking that will only detract from my efforts and take away from time studying.

On the contrary, I feel like it will help me learn it better because I have found that things stick in my head better when I teach it to other people, or at least when I have to explain it.  Just reading something does not help it stick in my head.  The challenge, as I see it, will be in sharing principles, while not disclosing anything that would be considered sensitive information.  Fortunately, most of the information at pilot training, or UPT, is not particularly sensitive.

I already mentioned one of the reasons for this being a way to help myself retain the information better as well as debriefing myself after flights and such.  The other thing I would like to do is help share information for the people coming after me.  I know how much the lessons of people in front of me have helped me in the past so I hope to pass that along to the people coming after me.

After pilot training I will attend C-130 training in Little Rock, AR.  It will be fun to go back to my old stomping grounds, and even more fun to move up into the front seat.  This training takes approximately six months though weather and aircraft maintenance can add significant time if you are unlucky.  I think it will help a lot that I am already comfortable in the airframe and understand some of the systems, but I will also be learning about a lot more systems now so I am excited.

After finishing up in Little Rock, I will come back home to Reno, which is when the real fun starts.  On the military side, I will get about 8 months of orders to get spun up on our local mission and ensure I am flying the way I should.  It will be fun to have flying be my priority again, but based on my rank, it will likely not stay that way for too long.  But, I will try to fly there as much as I can to learn and develop and progress.  Just like in the civilian word, hours and experience are the key in the early years.

It will be weird taking such a large step back professionally because I will not have the same experience and opportunities for a while.  This is to be expected, and I look forward to the new angle I will be learning with all of it, but I will miss some of the other stuff.  The biggest thing I will miss is not participating in the MAFFS mission for a number of years.  It has been the most fulfilling mission I have ever been a part of, and I will really miss it.  Hopefully, I will be able to gain experience and get back to it at some point, but that will take some time.

On the civilian side, I want to really ramp up my involvement in general aviation.  Be forewarned that this may get a little chaotic, because I get really excited when I start thinking about it, and there are a lot of things I want to do.

The first order of business will be becoming a CFI.  The huge advantage I will have here is that after UPT you can take an equivalency test and get your civilian commercial license.  I am also hoping that I can work with the FSDO and figure out if there are other requirements that may be simpler because I have been a flying instructor and evaluator before, though I am also realistic that it was as a navigator so it may mean nothing, and that is okay too.

I also think it would be incredible to teach my own kids to fly.  They have all expressed some interest and there are still enough years before they are old enough that I should be established as a CFI by the time they are ready.  I would love to give them a jumpstart on their flying lives and help them to see how amazing it can be.

The next step may actually happen as part of getting my CFI, but I want to buy my own plane for a number of reasons.  The first is the most obvious reason, then I can take my family up and go chasing $100 hamburgers, though in this area it may be more like $200 hamburgers.  The second is to be able to instruct on my own terms.  Joining a flight school would certainly be one avenue, but it is not the one I want to pursue.

The cost of instruction in this area is insane.  I have heard of CFIs charging as much as $85 an hour with most of them in the $65 range.  With as much as it already costs for the plane and gas, I want to keep the other numbers as low as possible to try to help people out.  I should be making enough through the military that I can afford to cheapen it up as much as possible.

That is the last part of owning my own plane.  I don’t intend to get anything fancy or crazy expensive because you don’t need that, and some would argue you can actually become a better pilot with the less advanced aircraft.  The cheaper the plane I can get, the cheaper the cost I will need to charge a student.

I am aware that there are still things like insurance, annuals, 100-hr checks, and other maintenance, but again, the simpler the plane the lower the cost.  At the same time realizing that an older plane can quickly become a hangar queen if you aren’t careful, so I will make sure to do a thorough pre-buy as well as taking the time to understand all of the costs of ownership before I close that deal.

I also want to get a tail-dragger for a few different reasons.  It would give me the opportunity to give tailwheel endorsements to some of the pilots I work with at the Guard.  I have read numerous articles and comments that talk about how learning on a tailwheel can really help your stick and rudder skills, which is also a nice bonus.  So if you have good recommendations of planes I should be looking at I would really appreciate it.  The long-term goal would be to end with a Maule as I have a major love of them, but that may not be practical initially.

In the long-term it also serves a valuable purpose to me.  I really, really, really want to get into backcountry flying, and many of the best planes for that are taildraggers.  I want to make sure I have the proper level of skill before I go too far in that direction, but I know there is a ridiculous amount of opportunity for that in this area of the country and I want to take advantage of it.

An important part of doing that type of flying, at least from my perspective is sharing with other people, both in the plane and through pictures and video.  While the majority of people will never go backcountry flying, it is important to show all of the different ways flying can be enjoyed.  I know there are other people doing this, and in no way do I want to take away from them or just be a copy cat, I just want to join in on the fun.

In a perfect world all of that would pay for itself and support my family, but I am also ready to plan for the airlines if that is the path my life takes.  I know that is what my wife wants because of the travel benefits.  It wouldn’t be too bad though as I will still have the Guard for fun flying, as well as hopefully being well into backcountry flying at that point.  If I have to do one to finance the other, that is totally worth it.

At the end of the day I really only have one goal with all of this.  I want to get more people involved in aviation and having fun with it.  It has become such a normal part of our lives that so many people see it as simply a means of travel, and not a way to open up life to new adventures, and amazing people.

Whether I can inspire people through writing, pictures, videos, or ideally going flying with me, or other people, I am all in on it.  It is also worth pointing out that this is all a long-term play.  I don’t have the means right now to pursue it the way I want to, but I have a plan in place to get there, and I will get there.  Inevitably some things will take longer than expected, and others will happen more quickly, but I know as long as I stay the course, I will get there.

My sister once told me something very insightful when I was nearing the end of high school, almost 20 years ago.  She said that “most people don’t pursue the things they really want to do because it will take three or four years [or more], but three or four years later they are still living the same life, when they could be living their dream.”

Earning my pilot certificate last year helped me to realize that there is always a way to get to where  you want to be.  It may not be easy, it will likely take sacrifice, and where you end up may not be where you planned, but if you actively go after it, you will get there.

 

July 13, 2019 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Earning the Title of Pilot

Have you ever wanted something your whole life?  Something that you have thought about pretty much everyday for as long as you can remember?  Something that you have always wanted to do, but always made excuses as to why you couldn’t?  Something that you actually started once, but then those excuses came rushing back in so you quit?  Something you actually convinced yourself would never really happen, but it sure was a nice dream to have for 30+ years?

But then you actually did it?

Such was my journey to becoming a pilot.  I have written about most of the journey in previous posts so I won’t dive in too deep, but before I talk about the hill that I finally reached the top of, I would not be telling the whole story if I didn’t share the struggles to get there.  If you would like to skip the struggle scroll about halfway down the page, past the picture, and you will get to hear about my checkride.

All of the questions that I wrote above were real life for me for more than three decades.  I would beat myself down and say it could never happen.  I would make excuses and blame everyone else for it not happening.  I would get really excited and motivated only to toss aside the dream the very next day.  I would say I wanted to do it so bad only to waste money on games or stuff or even just food.

To be very clear, these were all choices that I made.  Some of them I don’t regret one bit, like stopping flying when my daughter was born and we simply couldn’t afford it, but if I am being honest with myself, I wasn’t willing to do what it would take to actually get it done.  What that means is very different for everybody.

Some people are fortunate enough to be born into money or through some other means get their ratings paid for.  Others work multiple jobs, clean planes, sweep hangars, give up all of their free time and can barely squeak out a rating every year or two.  Still others decide to take on the debt and just go for it with that airline dream to pay it back later.

On that note we all do it for different reasons.  Some people do it to get to the airlines, others to fly in airshows, some to chase that $100 hamburger.  The reasons are endless, and it really doesn’t matter what your reason is, as long as it gets you where you want to go.  Your reasons may even change over time, and that is okay too.

So what finally pushed me to get it done?

I don’t really know for sure.  It definitely wasn’t one thing, but I can think of a few things that probably led to it happening.  In the last 9 months or so I have started listening to a handful of podcasts that relate to business and self-improvement and one aviation related one.  As I listened to all of these shows I was always blown away by how many incredibly successful people started later in life, or made huge commitments to stuff like Law School only to never practice law but instead be a comedian or a writer or some other job with no formal education needed.

It didn’t really matter where they had started, or where they had ended up, but the one theme that seemed common throughout them all was that they weren’t happy with where they were so they decided to do something that would make them happy.  Forget everyone else who told them they couldn’t, or that they were crazy, or that they would regret it.  In many cases they gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars to live on next to nothing, but they were happy because their life was filled with what they wanted to do.

I am sure that you can find just as many people with similar stories who failed as succeeded, but I have great respect for all of them, because at least they tried.  They saw something in their life they didn’t like and decided to try something new.  Even if they didn’t find success in the new venture they learned and grew and had a story to tell.  How boring will life be if the only story you have to tell is about the inside of a cubicle?

My apologies if it feels like I am digressing a little, but these were all of the thoughts swirling around in my brain when I finally said I truly didn’t care what I had to sacrifice, I am going to pursue my dream no matter what.  With any luck maybe it will inspire one person to realize they are not unique in having doubts and yes they actually can do it.

I had a plan to use a big chunk of my tax return to knock it out quickly, which lasted as long as it took the weather to ruin that plan.  It ended up taking a little more than three months, and I did take on some credit card debt to get it finished, but I don’t regret it one bit.  I still recommend getting it done as close together as possible since that does make a difference.  Having as much of the money together up front is also a good plan for the same reason, but don’t wait for everything to be perfect, because it never will be.  There will always be an excuse and somewhere else to spend your time and money.  That’s okay if you go a different direction, we all have different passions and flying isn’t for everyone.

The chariot that took me to a fulfilled dream.

Enough of me blabbering on about feelings and stuff.  Let me tell you about my checkride in the hopes that maybe you can learn from my mistakes and gain hope for your checkride(s).

I showed up to the airport about an hour before the scheduled checkride.  My CFI had the plane all clean and ready to go with logbooks in hand.  I should also mention that I did a mock checkride a few days before with my CFI’s brother Zakk who is also a CFI and regional pilot.  There wasn’t much on the flying side that was improved on that flight, but the time he spent asking me questions about the plane and other stuff felt invaluable to me and my comfort level.  While much of it was not asked about, the peace of mind it gave me was well worth the time.  If you have the time I would highly recommend having a CFI that hasn’t flown with you go up for a quick ride to get an outside perspective.

After a good thorough pre-flight I taxied over to the fuel pit and filled her up before tying her down and heading inside to meet the Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE).  It was at this point that we discovered two issues.  My CFI needed to recommend me for my checkride online, and I had done an electronic flight plan but not a paper one.  With a little bit of luck, and 7 years of making flight plans, we were able to get both of them taken care of and I was only a few minutes late meeting my DPE.

After getting through some of the admin and introductions we went through the logbooks, where I looked like an idiot staring at the page with the transponder inspection while my eyes refused to see where it actually said it.  I chalk that one up to checkride jitters.  I’m not sure what to chalk the next question up to once we got talking about flying, because I had a complete brain dump once again.  At this point I was a little worried, but he quickly moved on and I got on a roll.  There was nothing that he asked that was a surprise after studying the ASA Oral Exam Guide, which I highly recommend.  $12 very well spent.

I still struggled through a few questions just because I wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking.  Once we clarified a little back and forth I was able to answer all of his questions except one (I will now never forget that the plane prevents itself from exceeding its load factor by stalling).  The oral part of the checkride was actually faster and smoother than I expected it to be after the first few questions.  He then gave me a quick brief on what to expect on the flight and we stepped out to the plane.

When we got to the plane he did a quick walk around himself and asked a few questions about the plane including asking if a lower pressure on one tire was normal, which it was in this case.  We then jumped in the plane and kicked off the flying portion.  I gave a good thorough passenger brief which is something I wish I had started doing earlier with my CFI so it would have been more in my habit pattern, then we started her up and headed for the runway.

I have the habit of talking myself through what I am doing including my thoughts when I am in this type of situation which may or may not be a good thing.  It shows that you are considering all different types of things, but it also opens you up to saying something wrong and leading to more questions that never would have been asked if you kept your mouth shut.  For me, I also don’t like silence, and a good examiner will not say much so the talking helps keep me more relaxed.

As we rolled onto the runway I got a little excited, and I said what I say on pretty much every flight I took in preparation for this day, “Let’s do this!”  It is kind of a silly thing, but it reminds me how much fun this is supposed to be.  In my excitement to get in the air, I tried to rotate too early, and the plane didn’t want to fly.  I relaxed a little, let it build up some speed, and we lifted off without further issue.

We headed out to the West on the first leg of the cross-country I planned, which did not take long to show I knew what I was doing.  I guess the millions of dollars the Air Force has spent on teaching me to flight plan and navigate has been money well spent.  Once we had climbed up and found some clear air, which was abundant on a gorgeous Summer morning in the Reno area, we proceeded to go through all of the maneuvers.  Stalls, steep turns, unusual attitude recovery, engine out, using the foggles, etc.  The whole thing went really well other than slow flight.  I went to full flaps, and I did it too quickly.  This led to me being unable to maintain altitude like I wanted.  I was in control the whole time, but descended more than I would have liked before slowly climbing back up to altitude.

A great lesson for anyone who has not done a checkride before is to not evaluate yourself.  If you do something less than perfect then push it out of your mind and move on.  Dwelling on the past will only make the rest of the ride go worse.  Having had my fair share of checkrides, as well as giving a fair number as well, I pushed it aside and kept flying the plane, which is the most important thing you can do.

With all of the maneuvers complete we headed back to Stead to take care of my landings.  I opted for my soft field first probably because I was more scared about the short field landing and my tendency to float and I hoped that getting a good one in first would help calm my nerves a little.  I came around high as usual and took advantage of the opportunity to get my slip in.  Still one of my favorite things to do in a small plane.  As it turns out my soft field landing was not incredibly soft, but I got it down safely, and we taxied back for my soft field take-off, which went much more smoothly.

I flew around the pattern more nervous than I had been on the rest of the flight, especially after my less than stellar soft field.  As we came in for the short field I was actually a little low and drug in which is incredibly unusual for me as I am almost always pretty high.  I was also a little fast, and just as we came over the threshold I let the wind push me to the side of the runway so I decided to go around.  Something else that you shouldn’t forget when you show up for your checkride.  If you have a bad approach to landing without a DPE you would go around, why wouldn’t you do it with the DPE?  I have a friend that told me he went around five times on his checkride because he was so nervous, but he still passed.

The second time we came around the whole thing felt much more normal, or in other words high, but in this case normal proved to be the right place to be, and I put it down near the back of the zone, but still inside of it.  A good firm application of the breaks and retracting the flaps and he told me to taxi off the runway.  As I maneuvered the plane down the runway towards the midfield taxiway the DPE said some of the sweetest words I have ever heard from another man, “Well, if you don’t crash on the way to parking then you passed.”

Just thinking about those words makes me pause for a minute.

I did successfully navigate back to parking where he shook my hand and told me congratulations.  The next half an hour or so finishing up paperwork and putting the plane to bed are all a little fuzzy to me now as I think back on it.  But the feeling of finally achieving something that I had wanted for so long is something that I will never forget.  I was finally, officially, a pilot.

I will share a few things he debriefed me on, again in the hopes of helping someone else.  One of the reasons my landings were not great is that I was landing with a tailwind.  I checked the weather on the way in and picked the correct runway, but while we were in the pattern the wind shifted which only made it harder on myself, so keep the windsock in your cross check.  There is no need to go to full flaps for slow flight, at least in a Cherokee.  The maneuver can be performed with other flap settings as long as you are safely getting to the correct speeds.  Don’t forget the little power bump before touchdown on a soft field landing, it really makes all the difference in how soft it will be.

The biggest lesson that I would like to share to help those who may be nervous is that you don’t have to be perfect.  I completely missed some of the questions he asked me on the ground.  My slow flight descended too much, my soft field landing was in his words, “not soft”, but I still passed.  At the end of the day he told me that he feels comfortable that I will handle a plane safely in the future, which is the whole point of the checkride.  You aren’t held to commercial pilot standards, they just want to make sure you will be safe and smart in the air, that’s it. It is often said that the Private Pilot Certificate is simply a license to learn, and I am even more excited to learn now than I was before.  Now to convince my wife to let me pursue an instrument rating.

I’m not sure if it is better or worse that I waited to write this post until a few weeks after it actually happened, but the whole thing is still very surreal to me.  I haven’t been able to get back up since the checkride courtesy of work, life, and some things I put off to finish my certificate, but I look forward to taking my sons and daughters up in the near future, as well as my sweet wife who sacrificed just as much during this time.

There is one other reason that I finally pursued this dream that I left out earlier.  If I am being honest with myself, it is probably the biggest reason, and the one that pushed me all the way to the end when it took longer than I hoped, I wasn’t as good at first as I hoped, and when the money ran out and I had to take on some debt.  I really wanted to show my kids that they can follow their dreams too.  It doesn’t matter how long you wait, or how hard it is, when you truly commit to your dream, you can get there.  I don’t know if any of my kids will love planes as much as I do, I hope they will, but if nothing more comes of this than showing my kids that they can follow their dreams, then the whole thing was worth it.

July 17, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

My PPL Checkride is in 9 Hours

I had originally intended to write a whole post about this and my preparations for this day that I have been anticipating for 30+ years. Unfortunately, life got in the way, as it often does, and I think a good night’s rest is more important so this will be shorter than I had hoped.

I just finished going through my log book to make sure all of my times were accurate and complete. I got a brief from the flight service station that confirmed what Foreflight and my eyes already showed: it is going to be gorgeous weather tomorrow.

I rechecked my weight and balance along with drawing my route of flight on my paper chart. I took one last look through my study guide and have run through A TOMATO FLAMES, ARROW, and FLAPS about a thousand times in my head, so hopefully I won’t forget about the Mag compass tomorrow like I always do.

The crazy thing is that I don’t really feel that nervous. I have had plenty of checkrides in the Air Force so that probably helps. There is still some uncertainty of what the DPE will dig into on the ground, but I feel pretty good about the whole thing.

I don’t know that this is providing any value for anyone other than myself as it is helping clear my head before I go to sleep, and I am probably only doing it so that people will say good luck and make me feel better about myself.

To those of you out there that are pursuing the same path, at whatever stage you may be, stay the course, because it is totally worth it. I may be singing a different tune if it goes poorly tomorrow, but I doubt it. The sucky thing is I won’t even get to drink my sorrows away, or celebrate for that matter, because I don’t drink. Lol

Wish me luck!

June 21, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

My Last Flight With MY CFI?

This may be a little optimistic on my part, which is why I included the question mark, but at least as far as the requirements go, I have now completed all of the time I need with an instructor.

After knocking out about half of my required solo time, we decided it would be best to get back to some of the specifics of the checkride, as well as completing the remaining simulated instrument time. Fortunately, there is an airfield that is just over 50 miles away that makes for a great, short cross-country field.

Before we headed over to Fallon (KFLX) we went out into the practice area and went through all of the maneuvers again for the first time since one of our first flights together. It was great to work on something other than landings for a change.

When we had first gone through the maneuvers a few months ago I do okay, with the exception of my stalls, which kind of surprised me because I had never had too much issue with them nine years ago when I first started.

I’m not really sure what happened, but everything went much better this time. I guess I just felt more confident in the plane as a whole, and more specifically in my ability to handle the plane in a number of different situations. It was reassuring to me that it went so well, and gave me the confidence to get out there and practice them on my own in the future.

After going through the maneuvers I put on the foggles and we headed over the KFLX. The only thing that I have found incredibly annoying about the foggles is their lack of protection from the sun. I’m not sure why, but every time I have worn them we have always been flying directly into the sun. Maybe that is just poor planning on my part, but I am glad I was able to knock that out of the way.

Our intention with going to Fallon was mostly to knock out the cross-country and simulated instrument time I needed, so we didn’t stay long. Though I did take a second landing because I was not happy about the first.

On our way back to Stead we found ourselves safely squished between the Reno Class C airspace, and the mountains. At which point my CFI, who I realize has a name, Nikk took the controls for a minute and casually flew through some of the hills for a minute. It is easy to get so wrapped up in the learning aspect of this process that I can forget about what makes flying fun: freedom.

It was only a couple of minutes, and we didn’t do anything crazy, but it was awesome to watch him just freely move the plane through the air and demonstrate the lack of restrictions on VFR flying. You are not bound to a road, or track, or even an airway. You can let your hands take you all over the place and see and do exactly what you WANT to see and do. It was just great.

Once we got back into Stead it was time to get back to work, taking on short and soft field landings/takeoffs again. After working on them for an hour, the biggest thing I took away from it is that if you just always try and hit your mark there is no reason to do much differently. The one caveat to that being control manipulation on the ground for soft field work.

What I did find interesting in this instance is how familiar I had gotten landing with only one person in the plane. You add another 200 pound dude next to you and the plane handles a little differently. My challenge at this point is really in creating a steady glide path into the runway. I have a tendency to remain high through my base turn, something I think stems from the fact there is a big pond at the approach end of the runway that subconsciously makes me want to stay high.

The irony is that I then have a tendency to correct through what a normal glide slope would be and end up a little more drug in than I should be, not the best setup for either soft or short field landings. If I had to analyze myself, since Nikk isn’t here next to me to do it, I would say I am not properly using the inputs I have to make the whole thing smoother.

While I shouldn’t stare at them, I am not utilizing the PAPIs enough as I try to develop my sight picture.

I’m not paying enough attention to my VVI as I make the base turn and turn to final which is causing me to make a completely level turn instead of a descending one.

Finally, I am trying to make the landings as if they have become muscle memory, and they haven’t yet. I need to more consciously go through the steps of landing and make sure that both hands, and both feet, are making the proper inputs so that the plane will behave the way it is designed to.

All in all it was a good flight, and the fact that I no longer require the supervision of an instructor is a pretty awesome feeling. It makes me feel like I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel to finally getting that license to learn I have longed for all of these years.

May 24, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Solo Cross Country Flight: Starting to Feel Like a Real Pilot

The fun just never seems to stop for me these days, though it doesn’t always feel that way during the day.

After my long night flight a few weeks ago, it was so nice to get back to flying during the day.  Even when I fly at work I prefer flying during the day.  It is just so much more enjoyable seeing everything around you as you cruise along.  I also feel like my situational awareness is leaps and bounds better during the day, which is to be expected.

For my next flight I was planning to go solo cross-country, with the intent to knock out my long sortie requirement since the weather was so good.  As the day approached, I decided to be a little more ambitious, and knock out all five hours of solo cross-country time in one shot.  The sun ended up setting before I could finish, but it was still a good run.

I took off from Stead (KRTS) in a plane completely full of fuel on a warm afternoon, which meant it was a long climb up to 8500′ even when you are starting at 5000′.  No worries though as I mentioned that it was a beautiful day and I was thrilled to be in the air.  There were a couple of bumps on climb-out which is also to be expected when you fly through the mountains.  A completely smooth flight is essentially unheard of in this part of the world.

This is one of my favorite ridges to cross. We often do what is called a zoom climb in the C-130 here which gives you about 2-2.5k feet in a matter of seconds. I know that is no fighter stuff, but for a heavy that is pretty good.

My first leg would take me up to Susanville, CA (KSVE) which led me to fly through one of the areas that we often train in for work in the C-130.  It is so fun to fly through some of these same areas at a much lower speed and really get to enjoy more of the scenery.  It is also a trip to be the one at the controls.  Getting eyes on the Susanville airport proved to be quite challenging despite the small town that it is a part of.  Normally, you can look for an area that is a little more sparsely populated and that will help, but the whole area is pretty sparsely populated, so nothing really stood out.  I knew about where it should be though so I set up for a 45 to downwind based on the winds, and right about the time I wanted to enter the downwind, the runway popped up in front of me.

At this point, it dawned on me again that I was in an airplane all by myself again.  The last time I had done this was at Stead where I had already made dozens of landings with an instructor by my side.  Now I was at a brand new airport, that I had never seen, landing the plane all by myself.  I gave myself a little pep talk as I turned base and told myself it was no different from the other landings I had done by myself.  In hindsight I kind of wish I had done a touch and go at Stead before departing just to remind myself I knew what I was doing.  Fortunately, I still knew what I was doing and, while I floated it a little after coming in high, I landed smoothly and taxied clear well before the end.

After landing and pulling off the runway I had another one of those yell for joy moments like I did on my first solo.  It was the most incredible feeling to be out on the road all by myself.  I am once again somewhat speechless as I think back on it.

When you have wanted to do something for as long as I have wanted to be a pilot, it seems completely surreal that I am actually doing it.  It doesn’t even matter that it is not an airliner or some other big aircraft, pretty soon I will actually be a licensed pilot.

Stopped at Susanville and enjoying the glory of my first solo cross-country landing.

After taking a minute to enjoy the moment, I sent a message to my CFI, and my wife, to let them know I was safe.  Then after a drink and a quick look at the iPad I lined back up for another takeoff.  With the runway being a bit shorter I decided a notch of flaps wouldn’t be a bad idea, which I am glad I did, because it was definitely the most runway I have used for a takeoff.  I would have been fine either way, but it is always nice to have a safety buffer.  Leaving Susanville, I was also a little leery about birds because I know there are a lot in the area with the large lake east of the airport.

No worries though as I climbed out away from the town with no problems.  I fly in this area all of the time for work, and I was pretty much lined up on the run-in that we use for airdrops which was also fun.  I’m pretty sure there are no restrictions for flying in that area, and I knew none of our planes were flying on a Friday night, but I decided it would be better to just continue my climb so I could pick up some true airspeed.  It was still cool to see the area from a different perspective though.

Pyramid Lake is a great warm fuzz for navigation because it is huge, and easy to reset your bearings if you aren’t quite sure where you are.

This leg took me across the northern edge of Pyramid Lake, which is a great visual landmark in the area.  Right now the lake is super full with good spring runoff and a few little rainstorms we have had recently.  It is also one of the common areas for us to practice maneuvers because there are obviously no mountains in the middle of a large lake, and there are some great flat beaches along the shore in the event of engine problems.  I considered practicing some maneuvers, but decided my energy was better spent focusing on the task at hand, as well as making sure I got back before sunset.

After passing Pyramid Lake I crossed a bunch of the North-South running ridges that are all over Nevada.  It was a good reminder of how easily you could get lost if you aren’t paying attention, because they all look alike.  Those same ridges made for a bit of a different arrival into my next airport; Lovelock (KLOL).  Having to stay high over the ridges I pulled the engine almost to idle and started a more rapid descent into the airport than I did when I came in here at night.  It is amazing how different airfields look at night, and I was glad to come back and get that perspective.

Lovelock may not be real pretty, but…yeah, it just isn’t very pretty.

Being as high as I was, I decided to do a bit of an overhead pattern to set up for the landing, which proved to be uneventful.  Something that I was grateful for after every landing.  They say any landing you walk away from is a good one, but I was grateful for no real issues other than maybe not being as close to centerline as I would like, or it not being as smooth as I would like.

Leaving Lovelock would be my shortest leg so I spent a little extra time making sure I had my frequencies squared away as well as looking at the airspace for Fallon Municipal (KFLX) as it sits right on the edge of NAS Fallon’s airspace, and I had heard them recovering aircraft on the radio only about half an hour before.  This would also prove to be the bumpiest leg flying over a bunch of fields that had been warming up with the sun sitting high.  I am quite familiar with turbulence from work, but it is always rougher in a small plane.  Knowing just how durable planes are makes the whole thing easier to tolerate.

Fallon almost felt like home after flying over so much open land for so long.

At this point I was about half way through my sortie and this would be the first traffic I encountered.  As I was setting up for a 45 to downwind there was another aircraft taking off from the field.  We both communicated clearly, and I thought he would just fall in behind me, but instead he decided to bug out, so I had the pattern to myself.  It was nice to get back to a field I had been to before as well as an area I had previously flown the Cherokee in.  I think those factors contributed to this being one of my better landings of the day.  After a quick stop for a text to my CFI I was on my way back towards busier airspace.

This is exactly what I would experience flying over a couple of smaller airports, including an amazing airpark that I would love to live at, but a few simple radio calls made the whole thing a non-issue.  I will say that my comfort on the radios has made this whole training much less stressful.  I still mess it up on occasion, and I have plenty to learn, but knowing enough to keep the whole system flowing relatively smoothly has made a big difference.

I talked to this guy a few times on my way to Carson. It is always fun seeing different aircraft types.

As I approached Carson City (KCXP) I came in behind some traffic, and had to quickly clear the runway for some other traffic headed inbound.  Another smooth landing, and a quick exit made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing.  While I was taking a quick break in the run up area I was able to call out a flock of birds to another aircraft in the pattern which made me feel like even more a part of the community.

When it came time to leave it got even busier with a Bonanza approaching the runway from the opposite side parallel runway, and a 172 on base.  Not being in much of a rush, now with plenty of time before sunset, I let them both go first before taking the runway about to head towards my tower controlled airfield.  I had spent even more time on the ground preparing myself for this leg since it was very short and I would need to contact approach almost immediately.

With the mountains in the way they couldn’t see me, even though they could hear me, so they directed me to the East of the departure corridor and I set up for an extremely long downwind.  I think that flying in a radar controlled area can be a little intimidating for some people, and admittedly Reno (KRNO) is not the most busy of airspaces, but it is amazing how calm it can actually be once you understand the basics.  This is another field I had been to quite a few times, but the runways are about twice as long as all of the other fields I had been to over the last 3.5 hours, so I bet many of you know what was coming on my first landing.

Reno is a little bit bigger than the other fields I visited on this trip, and my landings reflected that.

I flared high, and plopped that thing in there.

I will say that it was not as firm as some of my landings that I really struggled with earlier in my training, but after that first one I had to remind myself about the optical illusion that I was experiencing.  Needing my extra full stop landings at the towered field I spent the taxi time walking myself through the illusion of feeling lower than I actually was to help on the subsequent landings.  They were all still a little high, but they did get better.  Before my final departure I took a nice deep breath as I was about to start my last leg.

By this time I was about four hours in and I could feel the length of the day starting to come on.  Nothing unsafe by any means, just a quick reminder to myself to stay alert and not get lazy on the last leg.  Probably because of that, and the natural straight in that this leg lines up for, I came in too high and had a nice steep descent down to the runway.  I had decided before hand that I would take a couple of victory laps around Stead upon my return as long as the daylight would let me, and it certainly did.

As I took my last couple patterns around I was able to enjoy a beautiful sunset and my best landings of the day.

After leaving the runway and taxiing back to the hangar I took a few moments to think about how amazing of an afternoon it was.  Most people on a Friday night would have taken advantage of an early work day to get in some extra drinking or partying, but as a non-drinker that is also not much of a partier, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Friday evening.  I didn’t get the full 5.0 that I had hoped for, but I did log 4.4 hours of some of the most empowering flying I have ever done.

My wife asked for proof that I was actually doing it. This is the face of a very happy man.

Not only CAN I actually do this, I AM DOING IT.  This is no longer a dream that I have had for over 30 years.  This is no longer something that I will get to when my kids are older, and I have no more debt, and the Cleveland Browns are no longer the laughing-stock of the NFL (aka never), this is happening now.  For the first time, that really hit me after this flight.  I guess it was just doing what I have dreamt of for so long that brought it home for me.  I dream about going out for a $100 hamburger, or just cruising around with my kids for an hour or two and enjoying the wonder of flight, and that is essentially what I had just done for the last 4+ hours.

Weather and work continue to delay the timelines I had originally set, but even that is not going to stop me from finishing and forever wearing the title of pilot.

April 30, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Flying at Night was an Eye Opening Experience

I finally was able to knock out that flight I passed on a few weeks back after a little vacation, and a whole bunch of crappy weather, and all I can say is that I am glad it is over.  I should clarify that any time spent flying is better than time spent in just about any other way, but I realized after this flight that flying a small, civilian aircraft at night is just not a whole lot of fun.

In leaving Stead and heading down to Reno it really wasn’t all that different at first because we were over city the entire time so most everything is lit up pretty well.  That being said, it is definitely a different sight picture at night than it is during the day.  I found myself flaring a little to high and having to hold it off much longer than I would have liked.  This was likely a combination of not having flown for a little while, and the different sight picture I was experiencing at night for the first time.

We proceeded to do three full stop taxi backs at Reno because for some reason the FAA wants all of your night stuff to be full stop landings.  I personally don’t understand the logic in this, so if you have any ideas I would love to hear them.  The one upside in this case was that it gave me more time talking to ground and switching radios, which is something you can never really practice enough.  On the C-130 I just type in numbers so it is good to get practice spinning dials.

After leaving Reno we headed East into the I-80 corridor as we very slowly climbed up to a good safe altitude.  This may very well have been the first time I have ever climbed up through the mountains at night without having NVGs like I wear at work.  To be honest it was pretty unnerving.  Despite knowing that I had planned well, and could see the freeway clearly below me and in front of me, it is not fun not being able to see the even the outline of the mountains around you.  It didn’t help that there was absolutely no moon either, but I wasn’t delaying this mission any longer just for some moonlight.

The half an hour or so it took us to get up to Lovelock (KLOL for those keeping track at home) was relatively uneventful, and once we got to altitude the terrain sloped away to the East and there wasn’t even mountains to worry about.  With nothing really between us and the airport, we were able to pick out the beacon pretty quickly, and a few clicks of the mic lit up the runway like a Christmas tree making it even easier to find a few miles south of any other buildings.

After a quick survey of the area we went in and executed three more full stop taxi backs, but fortunately the winds were mostly calm so we opted to just switch runways with each landing to save on the taxi time.  It was definitely a very different experience flying at such a small airport with no lights around it after flying at Reno that is surrounded in lights.  I also had the thought in the back of my mind that there is a lake off the end of one of the runways that made the whole thing a little more ominous.

After finishing up our landings there we began our trek back to Stead, and since we were running a little behind schedule, we utilized the wonder of ForeFlight to go back home more directly.  I have to say that it is just an incredible tool for anyone out there.  If I had a small plane I would not waste my money on a G1000 or other system, I would just buy an iPad and a ForeFlight subscription, because they honestly offer so much more at probably 5% of the price.  The situational awareness that it gives you is just insane.  I honestly wish the Air Force had just bought subscriptions to ForeFlight rather than wasting money on developing a different app.  If you don’t have it you seriously need to check it out.

By this time it was after 2300 local and after a full day of work I was getting pretty tired, but we still had four more landings to knock out.  It was definitely a little comforting coming back to my home airport after so long in the unfamiliar dark, and it got me a little excited again to finish the whole thing out.  Fortunately, the winds at Stead were also light and we were able to execute a few teardrops in the pattern rather than flying a full standard pattern.  It saved a little time which was okay by me and my CFI.  It was also a fun challenge to execute something other than a standard pattern and having to adjust in ways that you normally wouldn’t have to.  That being said, it is not something you should do if there are other aircraft in the area because it would quickly become a mess.

Flying at night in a small civilian plane definitely opened my eyes to the value of having NVGs with the flying I do at work.  The amount of situational awareness that they provide is just downright ridiculous.  On a well illuminated night it is almost as good as flying during the day.  I can’t even imagine doing anything close to what we do without NVGs.

This was also a good flight to help me remember that you have a whole massive skill set to learn as a pilot.  It isn’t enough to get good at landings during the day on a long and wide runway.  You have to land at night, and on shorter and more narrow fields.  You should try to get to soft fields and different surface types because all of those things are only going to help you build your bag of tools that one day may save your life.  From a less practical side, it is also fun to try new things and go new places.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan we took an F-16 pilot for a ride one day and it was the first time he had ever landed on dirt, especially dirt that was probably only 4000′ long or so.  For a guy that is used to pristine pavement that is at least 10,000′ long, it was an eye-opening experience.  He gained a whole new respect for what we do that day, and I guarantee he became a better pilot with that understanding.

So while trying new and different things is often not very comfortable, it is a great way to learn new things, have some fun, and become a better pilot.

April 19, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Setting Personal Limits for Flying May Save Your Life

It is interesting that I have been thinking about writing this post for almost two weeks now as I have seen numerous people post comments or tweet about this exact subject.  No matter how many times I see this message though, I will always keep repeating it, because the concept may very well save your life.

If you have read the last few posts that I have written (if you haven’t, you should go read them now) then you will know that I had a week chock full of flying about two weeks ago.  When I started the week I was planning to fly six times in three days; three flights each for work and towards my private pilot certificate.  It was a little ambitious, but the weather was good and I wanted to take advantage of it after a bunch of crappy weather.

The first two days went very well and I got a lot of good stuff done, including my very first solo, which I am still pumped thinking about.  When the third day rolled around I was still planning on a third doubleheader in a row, especially with as motivated as I was after my solo.  However, as I went through the next few hours of flying I felt my body starting to wear down.  I was still able to fly at work safely, but as we landed after the sortie, I just knew that it wasn’t a good idea to push for another flight again that night, especially considering we were planning to do a three-hour night flight to knock that out.

I sent a message to my CFI telling him I would need to cancel for the night, which he totally understood and agreed with.  As soon as I sent the message I started to regret it a little because I am so anxious to get this thing done, and like I said, I was still pretty jacked from my solo the night before.  But as I got back to my desk and started to wind down from my flight and take care of some paperwork I knew I had made the right decision.  I could feel the effects of five flights in three days, and my body needed to take a break and recover.

I ended up having to wait a few weeks to get that flight in thanks to a family vacation and a busy schedule, but I am even more convinced now that I made the right decision.  Would I have had any problems getting through that flight, probably not.  Even if I was struggling my CFI would have been there to make sure we got back safely.  But, why would you want to risk it?  The only thing I would have gained is maybe finishing my certificate a little earlier, and the only thing I would have been risking is my life.  Seems like a fair trade-off, right?

The point is that many of us love flying and are anxious to spend as much time as we can in the air.  Whether we have been grounded for a while due to bad weather, work, or even just anxious to finish a rating or upgrade that you have been working on for ten years, none of us would rather be on the ground when we could be in the air.  Which is why it is smart to set personal limits for yourself above and beyond the limits the FAA sets.

In the Air Force we fill out a risk management worksheet before every flight that accounts for things like fatigue and health of the crew as well as the type of mission we are planning to fly and weather.  If the score is too high we have to get approval from leadership who checks to confirm that we have properly mitigated the risk and that we are safe to fly.  Sometimes the number is just too high and the risk isn’t worth it, so we don’t fly.  That may mean missing out on rare training opportunities, or even delaying a mission, but nothing is worth risking your life.

So what kinds of things can you set limits for?

Weather is an obvious one.  Maybe you set a ceiling and visibility limit that you will not fly with less than.  Similar to weather mins for an instrument approach you may set a limit for both VFR and IFR flight that you won’t bust.  As you get more proficient, especially as an IFR pilot you may lower those mins, but understanding your abilities and comfort level will go a long way to keeping you safe.  You may also have wind limits, or certain types of weather you won’t fly with.  One example for us is that if we have severe turbulence forecasted we don’t fly, period.  Maybe for you it is fog, or rain, or some other weather that you just don’t want to mess with.

Rest is another important one to consider that can be very easy to overlook.  The Air Force, as well as airlines, have rules on crew rest that delineate how much time to rest you must have before a flight.  In the Air Force we also limit what types of flying we can do a certain number of hours into the day.  Things that are more challenging are restricted to early in our duty day because we want to make sure we are sharp in those high risk situations.

You may opt to only go to fields with certain runway lengths, crosswind limits stricter than the plane can handle, length of flight, or any other limits that you feel are important.  The point is to keep yourself safe, no matter how experienced you are.

I would never suggest a specific limit for anyone else, because each of us know how proficient we are, and what our limits should be.  If you aren’t sure what your limits should be set something conservative and roll with that for a while.  Then as you feel more comfortable change the limits to match your skill level.  However, don’t change your limits as you are stepping to fly.  Find a time when you have no pressing concerns to sit down and honestly assess how you feel about the limits you have set.  This way you won’t feel inclined to lower your limits just to meet a deadline or take that trip you have been planning for months and get into a risky situation.

While I mentioned lowering your limits, also don’t be afraid to raise your limits if your situation reflects the need.  If you haven’t been flying for a while, or if you are in a new type of aircraft, or if you have gotten into a few situations that were more uncomfortable than you would like, be honest with yourself and raise those limits to keep yourself safe.

Now thinking of every possible variable that could happen during a flight and creating a limit for it would be an incredibly daunting task, so I would say start with the basics.  Set some weather limits for yourself, and some sort of rest limit as I see those as two of the simplest protections that will keep you out of the vast majority of unsafe situations.  Then as you get more experienced and start trying new things spend some time in your mission planning to set limits for yourself as well.

Maybe most importantly, write your limits down so you don’t forget, or try to fudge on them later.  The whole point of this is to keep yourself safe so make sure you are clear about it.

Lastly, don’t ever budge from your limits when it comes time to fly.  I mentioned this briefly before, but it bears repeating.  Limits are there to make the decision for you when you may put yourself in a questionable situation.  They allow for a good level-headed decision when the stress and temptation are not part of the equation, or in other words, way before you are going to go fly.  By all means change those limits when you are not in your flying bubble, but never do it in the heat of the moment because you set those limits for a reason and that is to keep you safe.

One last dynamic of this that I want to point out is that setting limits doesn’t mean you can’t still do something flying related.  In my case I spent my extra time studying for my written test, which I passed with a 100% this past week, so I guess that time was well spent.  You could do some work on your plane, you could better prepare for taking that flight the next day.  Maybe you have a local flight school with a simulator you could use instead.  Or maybe you could even just hang out at the airport for a little while and get to know your hangar neighbors and build some relationships for the future.

As much as it sucks having to miss a day of flying, there is still a lot you can do to not let the day be a waste.  Setting limits for yourself may keep you from flying, but it will also keep you safe so that you can have many more flights for years to come.

April 15, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.