April 1, 2011
By Thomas B Haines
West Virginia farm fields fill the windscreen as we plummet earthward. Pressed against the shoulder harnesses, I crank the yoke over to enter a 45-degree left turn, causing the vertical speed indicator to slash farther toward the 3 o’clock position—nearly 4,000 feet per minute in the descent. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Garmin GNS530 display pop up a yellow terrain caution message. And yet the wind noise isn’t changing. The airspeed indicator hangs out at about the V A position, the old Bonanza as steady as if it were cruising along level. What gives?
“Amazing how much drag you can throw out, isn’t it?” asks Adrian Eichhorn from the right seat. A Bonanza/Baron Pilot Proficiency Program instructor pilot, CFII, A&P/IA, fellow Bonanza owner, airline pilot, and all-around Beech aficionado, Eichhorn is having me demonstrate an emergency descent in my A36. The procedure would be useful if a fire or other emergency demanded an immediate descent from cruise altitude. With the airplane slowed to 120 knots, I put out the gear and full flaps while pulling the power to idle. The view through the windscreen is breathtaking, yet the result remarkably predictable and safe. “Don’t forget to warn the passengers first,” Eichhorn advises. “The view from the backseats is especially unnerving.”
The emergency descent review is just one of several advanced maneuvers Eichhorn challenges me with over the course of a couple of hours of refresher training, all of them great confidence builders on how to get the most out of the airplane should I find myself in a bad situation.
A few weeks later, I was visiting the SimCom training center in Orlando, jockeying an Eclipse 500 jet simulator for a few additional hours of recurrency training. While it’s unlikely I’ll be flying the real airplane any time soon, the refresher in SimCom’s Level D full-motion simulator was nonetheless a great way to further hone my instrument skills, since you know the weather is never good in the sim. Night single-engine nonprecision approach to near minimums when, on short final, another airplane pulls onto the runway. Bummer! Single-engine go-around—at Albuquerque with mountains near. I struggle to keep it upright, away from the terrain, and on the missed approach procedure. Success feels good!
For many of us in the northern climates, April means a return to flying after perhaps weeks to months of inactivity. Aviation magazines, websites, and AOPA Air Safety Institute online courses do wonders for keeping our heads in the game during the snowy months, but there’s nothing like a new aviation challenge in the spring to flex aviation muscle memory gone a bit flabby over the winter.
Here on the magazine staff, we’ve challenged each other to try some new kinds of flying this year as a means of stretching our own skills and learning new techniques. You’ve already read in our Challenges sections this year about Director of eMedia Alyssa Miller’s first time flying aerobatics and Senior Editor Al Marsh’s experience in piloting a lumbering multiengine seaplane. In this issue, Associate Editor Jill Tallman grapples with helicopter aerodynamics as she tries out rotary flight, wondering all along if the laws of physics apply to choppers (see “ Challenges: Fling-Winging It,” ).
Throughout the year, look for our Challenges articles as we try out everything from tailwheels to ultralights to blimps.
And while most pilots will be challenged to book time in a blimp (although you can easily do it in a Zeppelin at www.airshipventures.com), there are many ways to sharpen your skills this flying season. What you fly is less important than simply flying something. The purchase of a couple of hours of instructor time will make your entire flying season less anxious and more productive. While the regs require a flight review every two years, you can impress your insurance company by getting one every year. If you’re instrument rated, logging an instrument proficiency check with a top-notch instructor—even if you don’t technically need one—will give you renewed confidence and improve safety. How are your crosswind landing skills? Think of the airframes—and insurance premiums—we could save if we all spent a little time brushing up on something as mundane as touching down safely with a stiff breeze across the runway.
Want something a little more advanced? Consider what you’d do if the engine quit right after takeoff. Author Barry Schiff explores that complex subject in “Technique: Unconventional Wisdom,”. You’ll want to practice at a safe altitude his technique for determining when it’s safe to turn back to the runway in your airplane.
The tag line for our sister publication, Flight Training, is “A good pilot is always learning.” How true. As we launch a new flying season, let’s all take that to heart and learn something new as we sharpen long-established skills. This spring, create your own challenges. We’ll all benefit from the increased aviation activity and the improving safety record that will result. See you at the airport.
Editor in Chief Tom Haines has flown a blimp, so he continues to seek new challenges. E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow at twitter.com/tomhaines29.
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
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