Thursday, October 30, 2008


There are a lot of checkpoints in a 320 mile flight.

I'm packing extra batteries for the GPS (don't tell anyone).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pilotage and Dead Reckoning.

The third and final stage of my flight training began today with my first solo cross country flight. I planned a trip from Flying Cloud aiport (FCM) to St. Cloud Airport (STC), a distance of 50 miles. Since I learned some hard and expensive lessons about waypoints and visual navigation, I chose very carefully. Each checkpoint feature was about 4-8 miles apart, and I made sure that I could see the next checkpoint from the current checkpoint. Doing this doesn't really add much to the workload but you always know where you are.

Of course, I'm a man of precautions. Sensible steps were taken to ensure a successful flight. So, I programmed my cheap little handheld GPS unit with a number of nearby airports and used it to verify my route of flight. Now, lest I get accused of relying on a cheap handheld GPS for navigation, relax. I used a sectional chart, waypoints, and VOR triangulation find my way around the Minnesota countryside.

So, the trip was uneventful so I won't bore you with a lengthy discourse on flying from waypoint 3 (Lake with small island) to waypoint 4 (western shore of Pelican lake). But a few interesting things DID happen.

First, when I landed at St. Cloud, 31 was the active runway. Now, this thing is a monster at 7000 feet long and 150 feet wide. As I rolled out the tower said "Warrior Five Two Three Papa Uniform hold short of Five - Two - Three." I read back the instruction but immediately became confused...what the hell did I just say? 5-23 is the runway that crossed 31, but I had to ask for confirmation. "Tower, do you want me to hold short of Five Two Three on runway Three One?" The answer was yes. I was essentially stopped on a runway capable of handling a 757, puttering away in my single engine airplane. The tower said "affirmative, hold short of Five Two Three on Runway Three One." So, that's what I did (it was a helicopter repositioning itself or something).

The second thing was another airplane that, defying the odds, managed to get close enough to cause me to alter my heading and altitude. Luckily I've been forcing myself to scan for traffic more often, and sure enough I saw this guy at 9:00 about 200 feet above me. I was at 3000, descended in a left hand turn to 2500 and watched him fly right over me. I slacked on getting flight following, and that definitely won't be happening again.

The third was when I was entering the pattern for Flying Cloud, I heard on the radio that two T-6 Texans (WWII trainers, kinda look like TBM Avengers) were coming in for a landing, and one was getting a warning horn on his gear. The other guy checked it and said one wheel was coming down slower than the other one, but looked like it was locking down. They flew the pattern a few times and finally the Texan pilot set it down REAL gentle, and it held. Drama, I say!

I'm hoping to complete my long (3.5 hour) cross country flight this week while our good fall weather holds up. I'm toying with a flight to Superior, Wisconsin and possibly Brainerd. Friday is looking good so far.

This is what I have left:

-> Long Solo Cross Country
-> Three (3) Review / Checkride Prep Flights
-> FAA Written Exam
-> FAA Practical Checkride

Hour Totals:

Total Hours: 37
Landings: 87
Solo / PIC: 3.5

Google Earth Track: Short Solo Cross Country
Logshare: Online Logbook

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stage III.

I took another stab at the whole cross-country stage check. Much attention to detail was paid this time to checkpoints, landmarks, and VOR cross-references.

We launched at about 4:45pm, and the visibility was good, with the winds at around 10 knots. As I climbed out, I turned to my calculated heading and began a "cruise climb" to 4000 feet. Immediately I began to identify my checkpoints and adjust my heading as necessary. This time, I could tell I was ahead of the airplane. I had spent a good amount of time reviewing the route and picking out secondary checkpoints that I could use in case I got off course.

In this case, a major highway was my southern boundry, and I was able to keep referencing it to maintain my heading. Also, the towns along the highway were good markers to indicate my progress.

When we got about 1/3 of the way along my planned route, Rob said "ok let's divert to Winsted". Excellent! I looked at my chart: we were due south of Winsted so I wheeled the plane north and started my scan. Since we were only 7 miles south, and I'd landed at Winsted before, I easily found the airport. We flew over, got the wind direction from the wind sock, and entered the pattern for landing. The landing was actually pretty good, but it's easy at Winsted, with it's luxurious 150' x 3000' foot grass runway.

At this point I relaxed a little, because from here I knew I could throw away the chart and easily make it back to Flying Cloud airport. We made a straight-in approach and I didn't screw up the landing too bad.

Rob said I did a good job and he thought I was ready for the solo cross country flights that are next on the agenda.

Google Earth Track: Stage Check II - Take 2
Logshare: Online Logbook

Friday, October 17, 2008

Solo in the Warrior.

Went up for a quick jaunt in the pattern today. I wanted to fly solo in the Warrior before my solo cross country trips, just to get the novelty out of the way. So now I've logged 3 more solo landings and I'm starting to get those polished a little more. One thing I proud to see was that I'm holding my patterns nice and consistent. Sure, it helped that the wind was only at 4 knots but I'll take what I can get.

I'm repeating my stage check next week, and after that, solo cross country flight.

Google Earth Track: Pattern Work - KFCM
Logshare: Online Logbook

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Remedial Cross Country.

Ok I worked through my anger issues that arose from my less-than-stellar performance on my stage check last Monday. Oh I was mad alright. I admit I drove angry all the way home.

But to understand what happened, we must examine the root cause of the failure. Two cross country flights with instructors (one at night) went off without a hitch. So, the first error was my overconfidence inspired by two fairly long, and successful, flights of the same type. So, while I spent a good amount of time preparing for the stage check flight, I did not study the details of the area I was flying through. The terrain north of Flying Cloud airport is riddled with dozens of lakes that are roughly the same size and shape (small, round).

Another error was the assumption that my performance on the first two cross country flights would prepare me for the diversion to another airport. This is simply not the case. Without an awareness of your exact location at all times, it is difficult to replot your course to a new airport. I believe that this should be taught before the stage check, because obviously I wasn't ready for it.

So, since Dan probably won't be my CFI anymore, Pete will now assume that role. He seemed like a really good instructor, and had me plan another flight to Alexandria. I kept an eagle eye on on the landmarks, stayed ahead of the airplane by entering VOR and CTAF frequencies into the radios before I needed them, and when I was told to divert, I cross checked my position with my chart and VOR fixes, and immediately flew to the diversion airport. The only thing I'd change is my landing, it was high and fast, and I should have gone around, but oh well. I'll practice landings next week.

I'm pretty confident that I can do the same thing again with Rob the stage check instructor, so I'll be calling him tomorrow to set it up.

And to silence the howling of a vocal few, I did remember to bring my GPS tracker with so there's a Google Earth track today.

I love the smell of aviation fuel in the afternoon...

Google Earth Track: Flying Cloud to Maple Lake
Logshare: Online Logbook

Correction and Update.

Ok, I've analyzed my historically awful cross country stage check flight from last week. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I was never really off course (the VOR at the time confirmed this). The bad news is, I just didn't know where I was along the course.

So today I'm going to fly the same course again with a CFI and this time I'm going to know where I am at all times. I've gotten a painful lesson in waypoint selection so I think I can do a better job. I should have a report tonight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Well I found out my new instructor Dan took a job flying a freight plane so he's not available for lessons before 5pm anymore. That won't work for me because I need to be home at 5:30 and also, it gets dark at 7 (and earlier every day).

But it's ok, there's not too many lessons left. I have a remedial navigation / pilotage lesson scheduled for Thursday and hopefully I can make up the failed lesson Friday or early next week. At some point I'll have to choose another CFI but for now I need to focus on getting past this stage check.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Flock of Seagulls.

Today was supposed to mark the start of the last phase of my training. But it really didn't work out that way.

I took the afternoon off so I could plan my stage II check ride. This was to be a final check to see if I had the skills to navigate a cross country trip in an airplane. So, I broke out my calculator, E6B flight computer, sectional chart, and ruler and went to work. The trip was a flight from Flying Cloud airport (FCM) to Alexandria (AXN). This is an 118 mile flight but we wouldn't really be flying it. The routine is to start the flight, go out to a few checkpoints, and then "divert" to a nearby airport. I thought I had everything all set, all contingencies accounted for, and every possible piece of information gathered. I even guessed the top 5 airports that the check instructor was likely to pick, and had critical information for each of the airports.

By now you can guess that everything did NOT go to plan. I found the first couple of checkpoints, and then things started falling apart. The check instructor kept asking "ok where are you right now?" And that's where I started to "get behind" the airplane. As I was trying to figure out where I was (and to be honest, I should have been always aware of my position), I didn't notice that I was seriously drifting off course.

The first mistake I made was getting the winds aloft (windspeed and direction at the altitude I'd be flying) at 12:30. I was not informed that there would also be an oral test portion of the stage check. So, I calculated my course and speed by using a wind direction of 180 degrees. We took off at almost exactly 2:00pm, so my data was 90 minutes old already.

I didn't discover this issue until I had gotten lost. We finally found a town, circled it, saw the name on the water tower (Annandale), and diverted to Maple Lake Airport. After I overflew the airport, I saw that the wind was right down the runway at 100 degrees. Yikes! The wind was 80 degrees off of where it should be.

I'll spare you the embarrassing details of my fumbling around trying to tell 28 different lakes apart from each other. The bottom line is, for some reason I couldn't navigate my way out of a paper bag today, even though I did really well on my first dual cross country to Willmar. It was pretty hazy today for some reason, but I think the wind direction really goofed me up.

Ok, enough whining. Here's a summary of where I screwed up and how I need to fix them:

Incorrect Wind Direction: Check winds aloft just prior to takeoff.

Not finding next checkpoint: Space checkpoints closer together and make sure they are unique enough to positively ID.

Not using all resources:
Cross reference multiple VOR's to get a positional fix.

Hazy weather: Not reports said 10+ miles of visibility, only thing to do would be to turn back. Hazy weather not really the cause of my problems.

Airspace: Be aware of what airspace I'm in and make appropriate radio calls to ensure safety.

Ok, there were a couple of things that I did ok that I should add here so that I don't get too depressed. One thing that I needed to improve was pattern work at unfamiliar airports. When I actually found Maple Lake, I overflew 500 feet above the pattern and then entered the left downwind at proper pattern altitude. I then put together a pretty good base and final approach. I did not panic when I flew through a huge flock of seagulls that was roosting on the runway threshold as I landed. Also, the landing was a pretty good one.

Next flight is a practice cross country to a nearby airport to sharpen my nav skills, then a short make up flight with Rob to demonstrate good skills in the areas that I screwed up this time.

So, everyone who had my up on a pedestal can now take me down a peg (a whole peg!). I've got work to do.