Saturday, October 30, 2010

Learning to Fly

Abram here.  A couple siblings asked about my progress on flying lessons, so I thought I'd post to explain the process and where I am in it.

I am training with a single flight instructor in a one-on-one basis.  I try to fly twice a week, although that is going to be a challenge with the fall weather and shorter days. 

The first phase of my lessons were about learning the basic flight maneuvers: climbing, level flight, descending, turns, steep turns, emergency procedures, and stall recovery.  We would take off from the airport, fly to the 'practice area', work on the various skills, and return to the airport.  The practice area is an area of north-central Massachusetts and south-western New Hampshire about 15 miles from the airport that is clear of  established airways for most air traffic.  Even from the first lesson, most of the time I was in control of the aircraft, except when the instructor demonstrated something, or assisted (or just took over) for landing.  In addition to learning the maneuvers, a challenge at the beginning was learning how to communicate with air traffic control on the radios.  We spent about 6 or 7 lessons with 9 hours of flying on this part of the training.

The next phase was about learning and perfecting landings.  During these lessons, we never left the vicinity of the airport.  We would simply fly the traffic pattern around the airport, taking off and landing 8-12 times over the course of 1-1.5 hours.  Operating around the airport requires precisely executing the maneuvers we learned earlier -- every time around the airport you need to climb to a specific altitude and hold it, make at least three turns to a precise heading, adjust for cross winds, change the airplane configuration (engaging flaps), communicate with ATC, and locate other planes operating in the area -- in addition to the new challenges of following the glideslope to the runway and making a proper touchdown.  We spent about ten lessons focusing on landings, with about 18 hours of flying.

Once my instructor was satisfied that I could be safe on my own, he endorsed me for solo flight.  This means that I can come to the airport and rent an airplane on my own to practice.  No passengers are allowed, and I am restricted to flying from our airport (BED, in Bedford MA), and no further than 25 miles away.  After I fly with the instructor to other places, he can endorse me to other airports.  It's nice to fly solo because I don't need to work around the instructor's schedule, and it is cheaper to pay for the plane and not the instructor as well.

The next focus will be on "cross-country" flights.  A cross-country flight is simply a flight from one airport to another more than 50 nautical miles away.  This phase of training builds on the challenge of controlling the airplane, adding the tasks of preflight planning and in-flight navigation.  Before the flight you must do a detailed review of the weather conditions, identify landmarks to navigate by, and create a plan including gas usage and expected arrival times based on the wind conditions and aircraft performance.  During the flight, you need to follow the plan and make adjustments to changes in the conditions.  The first trip I am to plan is from Bedford MA to Sanford ME (65 nm away, just west of Kennebunkport).  Due to the weather last week and my instructor's schedule, that trip will not happen until almost two weeks from now.  So in the meantime, I'll just be practicing the basic maneuvers.  Much of the trip planning cannot be done until just before the trip, since it entails using weather reports and forecasts.

The remaining FAA requirements I have to fulfill before taking the practical test are:
  • 3 hours cross-country flights with instructor

  • 5 hours solo cross-country flights (including one long flight with a leg of >100 miles)
  • 3 hours flight at night with instructor (including 10 takeoff & landings, 1 cross-country)
  • 3 hours instrument flight with instructor (student wears a hood to restrict vision to just the instruments)
  • 3 hours preparation for the exam
The minimum number of hours of total flight before taking the test is 40, but I will be well above that.  I will likely be over 40 hours by the time I get to do the first flight to Sanford.  Ultimately what is important is learning how to be safe, and the more practice the better.  Also the learning process doesn't end with getting a license, so the number of hours before you are official is somewhat irrelevant.  I think we all can agree that we are better drivers now than when we got our driver's license!

Then what?  With a license, I could take a couple passengers for short jaunts in the area; think picnic lunch on Nantucket, dinner and an overnight stay in Bar Harbor or Niagra... But no family vacations yet because that would really require a bigger aircraft than I would be certified for.  I would like to continue training for other ratings:
  • Complex Endorsement - allows you to fly planes with retractable landing gear and a constant speed propeller.  A constant speed prop is like a transmission on a car, as opposed to a fixed pitch prop that I fly with now, which is like a car with only one gear.  The constant speed prop adjusts the pitch of the propeller blades so the engine can run at one speed while the airplane flies faster or slower.
  • High Performance Endorsement - allows you to fly planes with >200 horsepower.
  • Instrument Rating - training for flying by reference to instruments; critical for safe (and legal) flight in clouds or limited visibility
Eventually it would be nice to have our own plane, or a share in one, but that is well ahead of what I'm ready for at this point.

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