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Skill Sharpening - A Solo Syllabus

A personal proficiency program

Why do pilots get rusty? Not enough flying, for one thing. Or the flying that they do doesn't support the proficiency they achieved in training. Like the rust that shows up on unloved pieces of metal, rust on pilots is unsightly and shows up in all the worst places. You may not notice it at a casual glance, but once its presence is detected, it has got to go. The best method of detection is to have the problem called to one's attention by a credible observer, but the more common development is for the pilot to discover the issue, sometimes in the form of a rude shock that would have been a piece of cake back in the old training days. Although I like to refer to pilot rust by its official name, the Flight Instructor's Continuing Employment Act, the fact is that there is a good deal of "owner maintenance" that can be done to keep the problem from becoming critical between those biennial reunions that the FAA wants you to schedule with your local CFI.

The process starts with an objective self- diagnosis of your piloting. Have you fallen into any of the usual ruts? If so, it doesn't mean that you must proceed directly to the practice area and flog yourself for a few hours. Just jot down a list of things you could do on that next hamburger run — things you wouldn't otherwise have done without a little prodding from the likes of me. If your self- examination reveals that you have not been practicing these pilot tasks because your confidence has flagged in the period of disuse, well, CFIs enjoy a hamburger now and then too, you know. But assuming that this will remain in the solo-practice realm, consider doing some of the following.

First, swallow hard, haul out your aircraft's documents — and perform a weight-and-balance calculation. Of course, we both know that the aircraft is within limits with just you, your flight bag, and full fuel aboard — but go ahead and do it. It's amazing what you can learn about an aircraft that you think you already know inside out. For instance, even pilots who perform a weight-and- balance before flying rarely check to see if the airplane will still be within center-of-gravity limits after a few hours of fuel are consumed. What are the changes in CG with an aft loading of bags and a few hours less fuel? What is the useful load of your airplane, anyway? (Did you know the number, or did you have to look it up?) It used to surprise me how many "good" pilots never review this subject area unless someone "makes them" do it. Now I'm older and wiser and it is the rule, not the exception.

Unless you are one of the lucky people who fly from a rough, short, obstructed airport that makes you carefully consider every departure and arrival, maximum-performance takeoffs have probably slipped a bit. What is the flap setting? Best angle- of-climb speed? How much extra airspeed should you add for gusty conditions? What is the difference between the performance you can expect on a standard day and a hot, humid day? What is a standard day?

In cruise, the book says your airplane should provide a certain fuel burn and true airspeed — as opposed to indicated airspeed, right? — for a chosen power setting, altitude, and the existing atmospheric conditions. Is the book a reliable indicator of what your airplane will do? This may be important information if you choose to extend that hamburger run as a long cross-country. Remember, the numbers are based on a properly leaned mixture.

Leaning — another item to review? Top off after your flight and compare book performance to real-world performance for your machine. Might be a good idea to keep a log of the figures and watch the trend.

If you are like most of the private pilots from whom I have scraped rust, your traffic patterns and landing habits would keep us busy for a while if this were a dual flight. Your first go-around, which I would request when you are about three inches from touchdown, will resemble a case of poor hand-eye coordination complicated by procedural amnesia. I'd talk you through the second one, and your third would be almost as good as the ones you did as a student. You can avoid this tragicomic scenario by carefully reviewing the procedure and practicing during your hamburger outing.

On the ride home, energized by the 100- percent fat-free burger and zero-calorie fries you ingested at the airport health food joint, you will be in the proper form for a more intensive practice round. If I were with you, a few minutes after takeoff, I'd inquire, "Where would you go right now if the engine quit?" When I was younger and more idealistic, it surprised me how many pilots would sit bolt upright, as if this question had never occurred to them, and begin surveying the landscape with profound intensity. Often they point at a bathtub-sized clearing, impossibly far away, and triumphantly declare, "There!" Failing to reach the only emergency landing site for miles makes a powerful impression.

Ironically, very small adjustments in technique can better the odds. For example, do you establish best-glide speed promptly, without much loss of altitude? You can actually gain altitude when pitching up to establish glide speed, but don't get distracted and decelerate too much. What kind of glide performance can you expect from your craft at the proper speed? How far can you expect to glide, with today's winds aloft, when picking a place to land? The answer may surprise you, compared to a speed just slightly off the mark.

For instrument-rated and VFR pilots alike, simulated flight by reference to instruments is an exercise the practice of which is inversely proportional to its importance. One reason may be the required presence of a safety pilot. Another, of course, is that pilots flying for fun want to enjoy the view. Flying instruments is "work." But if a qualified right-seater is along for the ride, dig down deep in your flight case for that "view- limiting device." A few minutes of heading-and- altitude work is a great rust remover. If you're feeling truly ambitious, cover up the directional gyro or the attitude indicator (or both) and see whether you remember how to do the really challenging part of the drill — partial panel on the compass. Lest we forget, emergencies such as flight into adverse weather have a nasty habit of compounding themselves with system failures.

If you were planning a diversion from your course to take pictures of the QE2 or show a passenger the scenery, the time you invested in those vexatious turns around a point and other wind-correction maneuvers in your student phase will now take on significance. If your rust is showing, your instructor's growls of old will be replaced by your passenger's complaining, "I can't see the boat anymore." Remember the rules about maintaining required distances from "persons, vehicles, vessels or structures?"

Back at the home field, it's common for rusty pilots to use one landing technique and one technique only (fast, flat, and far down the runway) when no one is sitting beside them bellowing, "Hold 'er off!" Make a conscious effort to select the method that best fits the situation for safety, efficiency, and the opportunity for someone else to use the runway. Touch down at the proper speed, or at least within 10 (as opposed to 40) knots of it.

If all of this sounds all too reminiscent of the cruel and unusual punishment that you suffered to earn your pilot certificate, it only proves that most of what you learned applies easily enough to your current flying. Whether you apply your preventive treatments in large doses or a little at a time, the trick is to catch the rust before the price becomes unreasonably high.


A Student's Solo Syllabus

A student pilot facing the rigors of flight training may find it hard to imagine that pilots could stumble over so many basics of good flying technique. But once no one is cracking the whip, it's human nature to let down. As a trainee, you face a different dilemma, but one with a very similar solution — how best to use those 10 local solo hours you must accumulate before you will be eligible to take your flight test.

Don't fall into the common student trap of doing a few steep turns and then "just flying around for a while." Prepare for your solo flights the same way your instructor prepares for your dual lessons- -with a plan of action, perhaps even in the form of a written solo lesson plan. This offers twin benefits. Not only does your next flight become a "mission" instead of a time-building exercise, but you can plan a sequence of tasks that will maximize your training time and minimize those expensive minutes spent just churning air en route to your practice area. This plan should include headings and altitudes you will fly on departure and between practice exercises — hold yourself to a high standard.

Make it a habit to locate possible emergency landing fields in your local area. Have one in sight whenever possible, and always during the practice of low-altitude maneuvers.

Consult your instructor for a list of things to practice during those sessions aloft on your own as your training progresses. If you follow your plan as exactly as circumstances permit, there is an excellent chance that the habit will stay with you, avoiding the problems faced by so many pilots who let the rust build up and are now bearing the various costs of removal. — DN


Fears of Flying: Flap Faux Pas

By Richard Darr

The day that changed my life was typical for north Texas in June: hot (100-plus degrees Fahrenheit), humid, and miserable. Not really ideal flying conditions for a 21-year-old, 45-hour private pilot in command of a Cessna 152 with full fuel and a passenger who had never been off the ground.

I went through the routine of my preflight inspection, showing my passenger friend how each part works, which gadget was what, basically boring him to death. He just wanted to get in the air. In retrospect, I believe that this is what got me into trouble.

Sensing that I had an anxious passenger, I hurried my preflight along once we got into the cockpit. I remember going through the checklist in the same meticulous manner as I had been taught at the "get 'em in and get 'em out as quick as you can" flying school — with one difference. I neglected to do the "check" part of the preflight check. I was flipping switches and lowering flaps with little regard to what I was really doing.

After calling Fort Worth Meacham International ground control and getting clearance to the active runway, we proceeded to the run-up area. We were sweating profusely in the crammed cockpit; the moving air from the propeller during the mag check felt good. Everything was normal, it seemed, and we were ready to go.

As we were allowed to taxi into position and hold, a quick glance at my passenger told me that he was ready to go. After getting the go-ahead, we accelerated down the runway, just as I had done countless times before. But something felt different. The airplane felt as if it was towing something. Next, I noticed that we became airborne sooner than we should have. I couldn't figure it out until it was too late.

At first I was thinking that the hot weather and full fuel plus a passenger were the explanation for this odd takeoff. But that did not make sense. These factors should keep the airplane on the ground longer, not put it in the air sooner. It hit me like a hammer when I realized what was going on. During my near-panic I turned and saw that the flaps were in their full-down position. Easy problem to resolve, it seems, but what I did not know at the time was that a fuse to this badly needed circuit had blown. I had no control of the flaps.

I called the tower to tell them of my stupidity, and they cleared me for landing. The events to follow, I am sure, earned me a few demerits from many fellow aviators.

As I turned downwind to land on 16L, the airplane started to descend. The stall warning horn was chirping, maybe even laughing at me. The already-close ground was growing bigger and bigger. Precious altitude was being lost, and it seemed that nothing that I did was of value. I was getting truly scared.

I called the tower again to let them know the situation, but I think that they already knew. I was a young, inexperienced, frightened private pilot with a helpless passenger. They asked me if I wanted to declare an emergency, words which I thought I would never hear directed to me. I answered, "No, but can you clear me for 27? I don't think I'm going to make 16L." My altitude continued to diminish and the stall warning horn wouldn't cease its intermittent racket.

Thankfully, we were given clearance to land on Runway 27. The last item of business I remember was being lined up for Runway 27, which had a slight crosswind, and I recall thinking that we were going to make it back safely. Unfortunately, the next thing that I remember after the crash is exiting Cessna N17250 and looking for my passenger, who suffered only minor cuts and bruises, as did I. Meacham was now a closed airport — for a short time, anyway.

We were very lucky. Cessna N17250 was not. We walked away; we are still alive; we still fly. The only parts of that airplane that are still flying are those that remained intact and could be salvaged. Maybe the empennage and the right wing, along with a few bolts. It wasn't a pretty sight, but the media loved it.

I quit flying for some time after this incident. But with a little encouragement from an excellent flight instructor friend of my father, I did get back up again, and I love flying more than ever. This accident and a few hours with a quality instructor have made all the difference in the world. I learned more in a few hours of flight time with a good instructor than I did in the few months during which I was enrolled at the flight school that "taught" me to fly in the first place. I have much more respect for aerodynamics and the principles of flight. I think before I do. I plan for "what-ifs." And, most important, I think I spend more time during preflight than I do in the air.


Richard Darr of North Fort Worth, Texas, teaches science to seventh- and eighth-grade students, using his flying experiences to illustrate his lessons. He has accumulated 120 hours of flying in six years and is a member of the B&P Aero Flight Club.


Practice Area: First on the Scene

By William K. Kershner

I didn't pay too much attention to the Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser when it taxied in and shut down by the fence.

It was the summer of 1946 and I was up on a ladder, washing one of the Aeronca Champ trainers, my usual occupation when not fueling airplanes or cutting grass. The rate of exchange was 20 hours of work for one hour of solo flight time; based on that, flying is a lot cheaper nowadays.

A car pulled up to the fence at a small gate, and the two occupants of the airplane got in and were driven away.

Still on the ladder an hour or so later, I was thinking how long it would be until my seventeenth birthday and the chance to take the private pilot flight test. I was also thinking that the oversized galoshes I'd borrowed (size 13) might result in an uncontrolled snap roll off the slick steps of the ladder.

The same car drove back up to the fence, and the two people from the Super Cruiser got out and walked through the gate to the airplane. Even from a distance I could see that they were having some difficulty in navigating the 50 or so feet to the airplane. (A clue was given when both tried to get through the narrow gate at the same time and were temporarily jammed there.) The distance from the gate to the Super Cruiser was about 30 feet, and both walked in a weaving path and fell into the airplane. I figured that they didn't do a walk-around because they couldn't navigate a full circle around the airplane.

The PA-12 was one of the few lightplanes of that day that had an electrical system and starter as standard equipment; as I got down off the ladder, the engine fired up and the airplane started wobbling toward the takeoff end of Runway 16, one of our two wide (400 feet) grass runways.

I lost the galoshes as I ran after the airplane. I planned to catch up, lift the tail, and damage the prop so that they couldn't take off. (Smart.)

I suddenly realized that the airplane had spun around and I was now the chasee. I was glad the galoshes were no longer a factor as I was seriously engaged in heading back toward the hangar, doing that time-honored Southern procedure of "picking 'em up and putting 'em down."

Now the airplane turned back toward its original goal of the runway area.

I resumed the chase.

The plan was to cut across to the grass takeoff area to stop the airplane from taking off. A smart move, with a running engine and two out-of- it characters headed at me. (I was not a brilliant young man.)

The airplane stopped at a 45-degree angle to the grass takeoff area and a half-hearted runup was done. Then, without turning — and at partial throttle — it took off across the runway, away from me. I kept running.

The airplane dropped almost out of sight in a hollow and then pulled up abruptly, one wing catching in a pine tree, and it rolled over and down into the woods.

My enthusiasm for catching up to the airplane dropped away sharply. I did not want to be First on the Scene.

As I came up on the crash, I saw that the engine was bent up almost to a 90-degree angle to the fuselage. The passenger was out of the airplane, looking up and commenting about some Mustangs flying overhead. ("Hey, look at them fighters!")

The pilot was still in the airplane, taking advantage of the cooling effects of the fuel dripping down into the cabin from a wing tank. He was out cold, and his buddy showed little or no interest in his condition.

I cut the switches and hollered for the guy to help me to get the pilot out before a fire started. Between the two of us, the pilot was laid out away from the airplane, and I spotted several of the airport crew coming through the woods and shouting that an ambulance was on its way.

My legs were shaking pretty badly as I asked the passenger why he had flown with a pilot who was drunk (as if he wasn't, but at least he wasn't flying the airplane). "I sure won't do it again!" he said.

The pilot had Off-Vol-On imprinted in reverse type on his forehead where he had contacted the radio on the panel at impact — but, as it turned out later, he was not seriously injured.

Months later there was a trial, as the FBO from the airplane's home airport sued the pilot for damages to his rental airplane, and I was called as a witness.

In court I used a blackboard to describe the event from the time the airplane first taxied in and shut down to the final scene at the crash site. It turned out that the two occupants had been met by friends and had taken a brief recess at a local tavern.

I was told later that the passenger with whom I had been carrying on a short, if meaningful, conversation had been born a deaf mute. I never got a chance to talk to him after that, so I never found out whether the so-called conversation was the result of his trauma or mine.

Washing airplanes was surely dull after that afternoon. I did get the private certificate on my seventeeth birthday — but that checkride is another story.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.

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