Written. Passed.

So I mentioned a few days ago that I was studying for my FAA Written Exam to become a Private Pilot. I probably should have taken this test a month ago but I wasn’t feeling as confident as I felt I needed to be to do well on the exam, so I delayed it until yesterday. I spent the weekend studying hard and doing nearly two dozen practice tests. On Monday and Tuesday night I was consistently scoring in the mid 90s on the practice exams so I felt confident going into the exam yesterday.

Various sources on the web warned to expect a five to ten point drop from your practice scores. They attributed the drop to a couple of things, mainly test anxiety and the fact that the FAA no longer publishes all of the questions that can be pulled from the bank and presented to you. So while many of the questions that I had on the exam yesterday were quite familiar to me, there were a couple of new ones in there that had me thinking. When all was said and done, I scored an 87 on the exam, which, when you figure in the hypothetical 5-10% drop from test anxiety and such, is still pretty good. I completed the exam in a little over an hour and I even went through and redid all my math and checked my answers before letting the test proctor know that I was completed. All in all, it was a great experience in that it helped boost my aviation confidence considerably and I learned a great deal from devoting myself to the books to feel really prepped for this exam.

The next step in my aviation career is the combination of the oral and the practical portion of the exam. I will be spending the next few weeks with my instructor tweaking and refining my piloting skills. I have all the basics down and most of my maneuvers are well within the standards prescribed by the FAA, but I have some things here and there where I need improvement and I more importantly, I just need to ramp up my personal comfort level so that when I take the examiner on an airplane ride, I don’t think of him just as the examiner but rather as my practice passenger.

I feel really awesome. This is definitely a dream come true for me.

Listening.

I had a bit of a learning experience with the radio during my latest solo flight on Saturday. I wouldn’t have been aware of this learning experience if I hadn’t captured my flight with my GoPro. I’m happy I reviewed the video later in the day.

I flew into one of our practice areas for an hour just to continue building confidence and work on a few simple maneuvers (Turn About A Point, etc). Others had the same game plan and there were a couple of us in the Practice Area.

Since we have flight following available and it’s the default for flights from KRME, ATC was watching the traffic in the practice area and advising aircraft of each other, just like they’re suppose to do. They made a call to another Cherokee about my presence. I don’t remember the tail number of the other Cherokee, but I know that it ended with an “N”.

I then heard another radio call, “89N, Syracuse Approach, advising of traffic four miles to your east at 3,500.”

Radio silence. Since I was flying 89R, I did have a brief moment of “wow, that call sign is close to mine, I’ll have to check out the plane someday”, and then I went into “disregard” mode, since he presumably wasn’t talking to me.

Because I was in “disregard mode”, I heard, “Cherokee 89N, do you copy traffic?”, when in actuality, he said, “Cherokee 89R, do you copy traffic?” While on the first call he mistakenly called me “Cherokee 89N”, the second time he was correct with “Cherokee 89R”. Due to the aforementioned “disregard mode”, I didn’t reply and I remember thinking, “I wonder why he’s not replying.”

Then I heard, “N7089R, Syracuse Approach.” Since I heard the cadence was completely different and I heard my call sign, I immediately replied like I was suppose to, “Syracuse Approach, N7089R”. ATC then relayed the traffic information to me and I advised that I’d be watching out for them. I had a fleeting thought that the controller sounded irritated, but I didn’t realize why. It wasn’t until I got home and was casually reviewing my video that I realized the misidentified call, the subsequent call I had mistakenly disregarded and then the third call when he clearly got my attention. My response was just the casual business as usual that I thought it was.

So the lesson from this is that I now know how I hear radio calls and I must key in on the “R” in my tail number. I need to listen closer and not go into “disregard mode”, I need to pay attention to the calls the best I can at all times. When I made this realization during my review of the video, I felt really bad and rather dumb. Since my instructor was flying with another student in another airplane at the time, I sent him a text message about my realization from the video and asked him if I had made him nervous. I hadn’t, good thing.

But l made myself nervous when I realized the gap in my listening skills. It’s another thing that I need to work on.

I recently made the comment that learning to fly has revealed weaknesses in my skills that must extend throughout my everyday habits. I like the fact that becoming a pilot is making me a better person outside of the fact that I can now fly an airplane.

Becoming the best we can be is always a good thing.

Review.

So after my solo short cross-country flight last week and the issues I had landing at the home airport, I decided to talk to my instructor and set up a lesson where we would just practice landings. Yesterday afternoon we spent 8/10ths of an hour doing just that and by the end of the lesson I was back on my game.

It turns out that somewhere during my solo flights I had acquired that habit of flaring a little too high and then pushing a little too much into the yoke on touchdown, which was basically making the airplane lose its energy and then somewhat slamming down onto the runway. It’s most likely that I came in too hot on that bouncy landing last Thursday and did the same thing, which caused me to bounce until I applied power again.

By the end of the lesson my landings were much smoother and I felt much more confident behind the yoke again. I had to admit that I was sweating quite a bit on the first landing; this was from the residual nerves I was feeling from Thursday’s experience.

On the downwind for my last landing of the lesson my instructor pulled the power on the Cherokee 140 midfield and I simulated an emergency landing onto the runway. This went very well and it helped bolster my confidence back to where it needed to be.

After the debriefing in the hangar with my instructor, I feel totally back on my game and I’m looking forward to a solo flight in the practice area tomorrow (weather permitting).

IMSAFE.

I think it was on one of FlightChops videos that I first heard this comment: “Experience is the hardest teacher, because she gives you the test first.”  

On Thursday I flew my solo short cross-country flight. I was excited about this next step in my flight training for a number of reasons. First of all, a guy can only fly circles around the airport only so many times before he wants a change of scenery. Secondly, since my instructor felt that I was ready for my solo short cross-country, I must be doing things good on a consistent basis, because my instructor is one of the safest pilots I’ve ever met and he is deeply rooted in the belief of not having students do something that they’re not ready for. I’m a lucky student pilot in that I felt comfortable with and have trusted my instructor since hour one. (He’s also a really good friend that I look forward to flying with for a long time).

We reviewed my flight plan. I had a standard weather briefing about 90 minutes before take-off and because it was one of the summer days where the weather could get stormy fairly quickly, I called for an abbreviated briefing right before deciding to leave. In my head I reviewed IMSAFE, the FAA mneumonic designed to remind pilots to do a safe assessment of this current condition.

I – Illness – Am I sick?
M – Medication – Should I be operating heavy machinery?
S – Stress – Am I too stressed out to fly?
A – Alcohol – Have I had any alcohol in the past eight hours? (Personally, I go with at least 12 hours, but that’s just my own comfort zone)
F – Fatigue – Did I get enough sleep last night? Do I feel fatigued? 
E – Eating – Am I well nourished? 

If I was doing my typical pattern work or flying out to the practice area, I would have been fine with IMSAFE and because this was my first cross-country as a solo pilot, I used the same criterion. What I didn’t factor into the equation was that I would be flying for 2+ hours. So the last letter in IMSAFE, the ‘E’, was a fleeting thought when it shouldn’t be.

As I drove to the airport, I remembered that I hadn’t eaten my typical afternoon energy/protein bar that I eat to keep my fuel where it needs to be before suppertime. I didn’t think it would be a big deal because I felt fine at that moment.

Flying out at 4,500 feet I encountered some clouds that I knew I couldn’t pass through. They were much bigger than those wispy clouds that can be fun to fly through where you say, “I flew through a cloud!”, where it’s a puff of white that’s no bigger than a yard across. These were fairly sized cumulus clouds that I knew I shouldn’t be flying through. Their base was around 4,000 feet, so I requested permission from ATC to get under them. In a couple of instances I flew around them. I was doing this while still maintaining my heading with the VOR and I was feeling pretty good about my performance, though I was busy with the extra ATC communication and such. Before I knew it I was at the VOR and ready to head to the next VOR, continuing my dance with the clouds before getting turned over to the next airspace. Because I had been keeping busy with the clouds and the extra comm work, I didn’t get ATIS when I should have. When I was turned over to the next ATC, they asked me to confirm that I had ATIS. I didn’t. I had to get it and get back to them and that threw me off. Also, this extra work was apparently burning some calories.

There was something else that felt odd to me. I felt like I had to keep hitting the left rudder harder than usual. Every time I looked down at the ball, I had to step on it. I’m not used to doing that. Something felt off. I usually never have a problem keeping the airplane coordinated.

When I looked back at the video of my landings at the far airport, I now realize that I was showing some slight symptoms of what I call “the bonk”. When I’m on the ground I enjoy long-distance cycling, and I have gone without energy bars on some of my trips and got into “the bonk”, where I’m a little calorie deprived and feeling a little foggy. I’m still functional but I’m not at 100%, I’m running at more around 85-90% mentally, and that’s not good on a bicycle and definitely not good as the pilot of an airplane. 

When I headed back to the home airport, I drank some of the bottled water I had brought along. While I had flown down via the VORs, I dedreckoned a direct flight back home. The clouds had cleared considerably and I had a smooth, uneventful flight home. I held altitude, I stayed on course but I still felt like I had to push the left rudder harder than normal, which was odd to me because if it was because of a crosswind component, it seemed like it should I should have to be stomping on the right rudder more to get home.

I was handed off to the home ATC where I made an approach and found the nose of the airplane off the center line on final. I tried to correct it with more left rudder and found myself feeling uncomfortable with the approach and decided to go-around.

I tried again, definitely feeling hungry and I was inadvertently crabbing to the right. I corrected the nose and got where I needed to be and came in and bounced. And bounced. And bounced again. I went to put more power in and was a little slow on the uptake so I bounced once more. That last bounce was really hard. Two days later I can still feel and hear it in my head. I was convinced I had broken a wheel off but I finally got airborne and went around. Frankly, I scared myself. I told ATC I was going around and I think I added “what the hell was that?”. ATC replied, asking if I was “alright” and I said, “yeah, I’m fine”. I took my time in the pattern and came in fine on the third attempt, though I was still feeling like I was pushing a lot on that left rudder. As I was flying the pattern, I confirmed that I hadn’t left any parts sitting on the runway. Luckily, everything was intact. I was apologizing profusely to the airplane and sweating like crazy, but I finally got it down with a decent landing. 

Oddly, my GoPro stopped during the approach before my bouncy-bounce down the runway. In a way I wish I had caught this on video, but the fates decided against that. Looking at this last screen cap, I can tell that my altitude is great, my airspeed is right where it needs to be but I’m crabbing just a bit to the right.  I don’t know if a gust of wind came up, if I did something weird with my feet or what, but I do know that my hand is way too tight on the yoke at that moment.

Image

Still shaken, I taxied back to the runway to find my instructor and fellow student sitting in the hangar enjoying the nice weather. After a few moments I jumped out of the airplane and started ranting a bit about my stupidity and the bouncing and all that. Neither of them had seen what I had done. My instructor wisely let me get it off my chest for about two minutes and then he told me to stop and calm down. “Everyone does stupid things and has a bad day. Learn from it.”

It took me a bit to decide to look at the video and I can tell that I need to do a better assessment of IMSAFE.  Eating is important.  I also could have turned around when I found myself being quite busy with navigating around the clouds and when I felt that something was off with either the airplane or the way I was flying the airplane. None of my fellow pilots have had an issue with having to give the airplane more left rudder; the only thing that we discovered was that the rudder trim was turned all the way to the right. We don’t know if it’s been that way for a long time. I now know to check the rudder trim, which I was hesitant to do while flying solo and having never done that before.

My biggest take-away from that cross-country flight was the experience of scaring myself. I believe that in the long run it will make me a safer pilot and I will definitely being doing a much more thorough self analysis of IMSAFE and PAVE (Personal, Aircraft, enVironment, External pressures). As excited as I was about flying my solo short cross-country, if I felt at all hesitant, I should have stopped right there. I was putting external pressure on myself to continue on because after all, flying is awesome. 

I think I passed that test for experience. I’m looking forward to doing a safety check ride with my instructor this week to get my head back where it needs to be and the continuing on with my training. Since overall the cross-country was successful, I don’t need to do another solo short cross country, but I’m probably going to spend the extra money to do it just so I feel better about the whole experience.

Solo!

So I’m a little bit behind on my blogging. I’ve been focusing on making videos and sharing my aviation adventures through social media, but I haven’t had time to sit down and write a blog entry.

It’s the 15th of May and I’ve already logged nearly four hours this month. The weather in Central New York has been most cooperative and it has been a nice change of pace.

Last Tuesday my instructor and I went for a pre-solo check ride lesson. We went to the West Practice Area where we practiced turns about a point, steep turns and then he pulled the power back to idle and we simulated an emergency landing.  I didn’t feel 100% about my performance. I feel I was safe but I have high expectations of myself. On the way back to the airport we did a couple of landings and I brought the airplane down safely, both landings being what I would call “very good” (on a scale of one to six, I’d give them a 3.5 or 4). I felt good but not great about the lesson in general, by my attitude was positive and my instructor’s attitude was encouraging. That night he sent me a text message letting me know that my next lesson would be with another instructor for .5 hours. 

Now, I was pretty sure that I knew what this meant. My instructor and the other work together with students and one cross-checks for the other to make sure they’ve covered everything they need to cover before letting a student solo. On Thursday I met up with the other instructor, where he told me that he was just going to ride along to see how I do. We did four turns around the pattern.

One of the things that I noticed with the other instructor is that the airplane definitely handled a little differently with the other instructor. It wasn’t a huge difference but it was noticeable. I considered this a good thing because it was evidence that I could “feel” my environment. I made four landings: a good and a couple of very goods. One of my approaches was too high and I opted to do a go around and the instructor was happy that I made that decision and had demonstrated that I knew when to go around.

When we got back to the hangar, my instructor and a fellow student were waiting. The instructor I had just flown with told my instructor that I made safe landings and that he recommended that I solo. My instructor grinned and asked me the big question, “Are you ready? Do you want to give it a try?”

My practice landings right before this were while sharing the pattern with a C-130 doing some touch ‘n goes, so I knew there would be a big guy out there with me. I thought about it for about five seconds and then I smiled, “I’m going to do it.”

And then I was alone in the airplane. I went through the checklist and did everything just as I was taught. I continued to talk out loud, just as if I was telling my instructor what I was doing. My radio calls were great, I felt confident. After the first takeoff I said out loud, “Oh my god, I’m flying an airplane.”  I noticed a difference in the handling again because the right-seat was empty. I was nervous but confident. It felt great.

My first solo landing was my best landing to date. I went again, feeling great. My second landing, which I decided would be my last for the day due to the C-130 and the increasing wind gusts, was great, not as good as the first, but better than my average. Because of the C-130 landing behind me, I had to pull off at a taxiway and wait for the runway to clear before I could get back down to the hangar (we have a closed taxiway this summer and we end up doing a lot of taxi-ing on the active runway). While waiting for the C-130, I sent a Facebook message out: “So I just flew an airplane by myself!”.  I was so excited about the experience that when I finally got off the runway (after taxi-ing to the hangar area), I said, “Griffiss Tower, Cherokee 89R, cleared the active and just finished my solo!”.  I couldn’t contain myself. The ATC guy congratulated me. I had a feeling that the guys in the C-130 might have smiled. Getting back to the hangar I felt amazing when I got out of the airplane. I shook hands with both the instructors, posed for my solo flight picture and hugged my fellow student. The first milestone of my aviation journey, the milestone that I had dreamed about for years, had come true. It was a truly life-changing experience for me.

On Sunday I decided to exercise my new found solo powers and do some practice landings on my own. I made five landings: a great, a couple of excellents, a very good and a “most outstanding”. The hardest part of being a solo student is pushing the airplane back into the hangar by myself.

The excitement of this accomplishment lingers with me a week later. Tuesday’s flight, which introduced me to VOR navigation, was wonderful. I finally feel confident in the cockpit. I don’t feel cocky at all, I know I have a lot more to learn before I can go for my ticket and I know that I will ALWAYS be learning as a pilot, but I feel so great now.

Flying is awesome.