When I got to the airport today I met my instructor coming out the door and heading for his car. "Hey! You got an airplane?"
"Okay, it's nice today. What're you gonna do?"
"I figured I'd do a few landings and then head out to the practice area - like you said, stay within sight of the river, but hang out over UMass Amherst and do some maneuvers."
"Great. Don't embarrass me."
"If I do, I'm not gonna be in any condition to worry about it." We both laughed, and he waved and headed off. I went inside and collected the clipboard for 12732 and a loaner headset. I've ordered a headset - a David Clark H10-13.4, the ubiquitous 'light green metal' headset every pilot has seen and that the military uses - but it hasn't arrived yet. Headed out to the airplane.
As I was preflighting, the FBO desk guy walked by and said "If it needs fuel, wave me down on the way back and I'll take it out to the pump." He was on his way to get the tow cart and move some airplanes around. I waved back. Sure enough, 12732 had 15 gallons of avgas in her, which is only about 1.6 hours of flying time - not enough. When he was heading back over, I waved, so he came over and hooked on and towed her out to the fuel stand while I walked alongside. The weather today was much nicer than the past few days - sunny, but only around 82 or 83 degrees, with a light variable breeze. Some kind soul had left 12732's door and window open, so she wasn't an oven inside. I thanked the FBO driver and started the fueling.
First, put the static line clamp onto the exhaust pipe. Then put the smartcard in the machine, confirm you grounded the airplane, and turn the pump on. Then take a ladder and unroll the fuel pump hose out to the airplane. I set up the ladder and climbed up, then started carefully filling the right tank - hoping this time I wouldn't end up with avgas all over my shirt. It took a bit longer due to my caution, but I indeed managed to get the tank nearly to the top without spilling. I declared victory and moved over to the left tank, where I succeeded again. Rolling up the fuel hose, I then unclipped and reeled in the grounding strap and put the ladder back. Drained both tanks to check for water, found none - and I was ready to go. Got into the plane, fastened my seatbelt, found the checklist, and put on my headset. Did a radio check - FBO desk responded immediately, all OK. Primer in and locked, mixture full rich, carb heat off, electrics off, master switch on, throttle at 1/8 inch, start-
...and it caught nearly immediately. Turned around and taxied out to the threshold of One Four. As I approached the departure end, a Beechcraft Sundowner announced his entry to a left downwind for One Four and, seeing me on the ground, asked if I wanted him to extend his downwind.
*click* "Beech seven niner golf, no thank you, I have to do a runup so I'll wait until you go by."
"Skyhawk seven three two, thank you much."
Checked flight controls; free and correct. Checked flaps. Checked fuel selector valve. Set brakes (I'd tested 'em during the taxi). Brought the RPMs up to 1700, checked oil pressure - good; checked fuel quantity - good; checked oil temp - good; checked instrument vacuum - good; checked left magneto, 50 RPM drop; checked right magneto, 75 RPM drop; checked carb heat - 50 RPM drop. Brought the engine back down to 1000. Turned on the transponder (1200, ALT), double checked my radio, set the DG to the magnetic and set the altimeter to 122 feet (field elevation). As I finished that, the Beechcraft floated down past my windscreen, flaring for a touchdown, and rolled long. "Skyhawk 12732, Beech seven niner golf; we'll roll to the end and wait in the pocket for you to depart."
"Beech seven niner golf, Skyhawk 732, thank you much."
Continued on - released brakes, did the pre-takeoff check - fuel selector (again), trim wheel (set to takeoff), flaps (up, verified looking out windows), mixture (rich) and carb heat (out). "Northampton traffic, Beech seven niner golf is clear of One Four."
*click*"Thanks again, 79G - Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is departing One Four Northampton." Brought the power in, taxied to the back edge of the runway and swung onto centerline, then brought the power all the way up and held it. Takeoff roll was smooth, and the airplane lifted off around 70 MPH - I could have gotten it up earlier, but it was warm and I had the room. Established an 80 MPH climb as 79G announced they were backtaxiing on One Four for the taxiway. The Connecticut River meandered through dark green woodlands, so different from the post-nuclear scenery of the Redbird simulator that I laughed thinking about it and absently looked down out my window to the trees directly below me - and was struck powerfully again by the fact that HOLY LIVING CRAP I'M FLYING A FRIGGING AIRPLANE!
Laughed some more in lieu of punching the dashboard happily like I would in a car - bad idea in a plane - and continued the climb out. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is turning left crosswind for One Four Northampton." Made the turn, noticing some bumpy air - the airplane was swiveling around a bit and bouncing up and down a little, so I dropped the nose to maintain a 90 MPH climb, leaving some speed in reserve for gusts. Turned downwind (announced) and dropped back to 2100 RPM with carb heat, working a little to maintain 1100 MSL with the bumps. Turned base and thought "Hm, I'm a little close" and sure enough, by the time I got onto final, I was high. I put in my reserve flaps and pulled power and concentrated on making the runway. Thought about adding power once, but forced myself not to - and sure enough, floated just over the threshold bars around 15 feet up and held the flare until the stall horn made a mournful hoot and the wheels dropped onto the tarmac. The airplane slowed, and I had to use very little brake to make the turnoff. Win.
Taxied back over into position again, noting that the Beech was parked on the grass near the FBO. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is departing One Four Northampton, departing the pattern to the east." Did just that, checking to make sure nothing was in the area (no balloons, right?) and then rolling out onto the runway and departing. The climbout was much the same, and as I turned crosswind I aligned the nose with the towers of UMass in the distance, maybe zero four zero, and held the climb. When I was a couple of miles short of the campus, I was at 2500 feet. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is over UMass at two thousand five hundred, climbing." Kept the climb in - at 3000, I'd just passed the towers. Turned left and circled around, holding 3000. Watching my ground track I couldn't see any significant winds, so I picked a building and started practicing turning around it. Oh yeah - "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is over UMass at 3000 feet, maneuvering." Took me a bit to realize I had to hold myself further out from my target bulding, but after a few minutes, I was in a lazy circle around the building in a standard (30 degree) left bank. Held that for a while, wobbling a couple hundred feet around 3000 as I got better at holding altitude and then picked another and did a right circle. I noticed that right over the campus, the bumps were really noticeably worse - likely because the campus was an oasis of parking lots and HVAC in a sea of trees, so hot air columns were to be expected.
Off to the south, a C-5 Galaxy was doing pretty much the same thing I was, I was amused to note - perhaps twice as high, it too was doing lazy turns and banks in the Westover practice area south of the ridge. I picked a straight section of Rt. 116, north of Rt. 9, and started trying to do turns across it - left then right banks, doing semicircles on either side of the road. The bumps made it pretty difficult, and I kept finding myself facing the road having not done a 180 degree turn but either a 210 degree or a 160 degree. Resolved that this was just a matter of practice so I got a 'feel' for how fast the airplane turned, and the bumps weren't helping as I was having to correct for the bank angle getting munged up every time I got bobbled. Still, managed to hold my height during the process.
Finished up with a couple of steep turns (45-50 degree bank) left and right before settling the nose on the malls at the intersection of 116 and 9. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is five miles east of the field, descending through two thousand five hundred to join a left downwind for One Four Northampton." Realized I could have followed Rt. 9 directly to the bridge and ended up on a long base, but figured nah, better to practice joining the downwind.
"Northampton traffic, Cherokee Six Five Eight Hotel is over UMass at three thousand, overflying the field at that altitude to the south."
Checked my altitude - yep, below two thousand. "Cherokee Six Five Eight Hotel, Skyhawk 12732, I'm below you at two thousand and descending into the pattern for One Four Northampton."
"Skyhawk 12732, thank you, I have you in sight, Five Eight Hotel." Always good to hear, especially when they're somewhere you can't see them (in this case, above and behind me when I'm in a high-wing plane). I made sure I'd put carb heat in for the descent (yep, I had) and checked instruments. All OK; descending at 100 MPH and 500 feet per minute (excellent) and five hundred feet above pattern altitude. Came to 1100 a mile or so prior to the point I'd have to turn to join the downwind; added power back in and lifted the nose, and the airplane leveled off right at 1100 and held it. The speed went up to 110. Perfect. "Northampton traffic-" (started my right turn) "-Skyhawk 12732 is joining a right downwind for One Four Northampton, full stop." I looked around to see if I was close or far, but it looked OK. I saw a building I'd seen just in front of the nose on my first landing and it was over to the left of the cowling, meaning I was further out than that run - which was good, because I'd ended up close and thus high. The runway numbers moved under my left strut, so I pulled power back to 1500, checked I was in the white arc on my airspeed indicator (yep) and gave it the first ten of flaps. Pulled the nose back slightly to maintain 90 MPH.
As I drew level with the microwave tower over near Route 5/10, with its white blinking warning strobe, I banked left. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is turning left base for One Four Northampton." Added the second increment of flap as I leveled the wings, and the speed dropped obediently to 80 MPH. Nice. The runway was coming up on the left, so I turned left a bit sooner than I'd thought I'd have to, but when I rolled out onto final, the VASI was red-over-white and my speed was 75 MPH. I joggled the yoke a bit, getting the nose lined up, and pulled back to maintain 70 MPH. The air was still bumpy, and after getting hit with a couple of gusts I lowered the nose to get 75 again, for safety. The touchdown point looked short - I was descending through the glideslope. I swear the VASI glideslope at 7B2 is meant for bigger, faster airplanes than a 172. I gave it a few seconds of power, feeling the airplane respond and flatten its descent. When my estimated touchdown point was just short of the numbers, I pulled the power all the way out and put both hands on the yoke to fly the airplane down. Came over the threshold at around 20 feet, and when I flared I may have been still carrying that extra 5 MPH because I started to balloon just a bit, so I pushed the nose down gently and flew it back to a few feet up and held it. The wheels touched - *eerrrrrrk*- and I was braking, still easily making the turnoff.
Hot damn, I just flew out to Amherst and came back. Who cares if it's literally next door - that next step is taken, I've soloed outside the pattern
But I still had the airplane for a half hour, so I did another four landings just to be sure.
Saw my instructor back inside. "How'd it go?"
"Fine - bit bumpy, so I stuck to turns out by UMass and came home after half an hour and did landings. Those were fine, no trouble making the turnoff."
"Great. You have the plane tomorrow too, right? Yeah, you don't need me, do that again. Come in at nine, though, not eight in the morning - you won't be able to check out the airplane until nine, because I'm not gonna be here. I'll see you when you get back."
"Okay! Thanks." I filled out my logbook - Pilot in Command time, woohoo! - and for the first time, added up all my hours including my hours from those years ago. Hm, I have 52.1 hours in airplanes, and something like 14 of those are solo time. Excellent.
When I got home, I debated going to one of those two-day weekend FAA written exam cram courses - I have to pass the written to progress - and found that the only one within driving range is in Boston - this weekend. Next one offered is October or November. Thought about it, read some reviews - and decided to order the Gleim test prep and Jeppesen textbook instead. I'm sure I could pass the test if I went to this thing - but it would mean getting up at 5:30 Saturday to get there, and working 8-6 both days, and paying...well, a bunch of money. If I completely screw it up doing it myself, well, I can always go to the one in October. :-P