Got the the airport around 5:50pm. The sun was just starting to edge down in the west; the sky was clear and blue, and there was a bit of haze out beyond four or five miles. Didn't see my CFI, so I started preflight. As I was fooling around finding various things (sunglasses, fuel cup, ladder, etc.) I looked up and my CFI was checking the oil level. I straightened as he started off across the tarmac, saying "Gotta find a funnel." While he was doing that, I did my walkaround. Everything looked fine; control cables not too tight or loose, ailerons moving opposite each other and moving the yoke, no lights broken, and so forth. He came back and put a quart of oil in as I was dipping the left wing tank. "How much we got?"
"Twelve on each side."
"Cool, we don't have to gas it."
I finished my walkaround with a couple of questions ("what's the air intake inside the cowling on the left?" "-carb heat intake." "Where's the alternate static air?" "-Inside the cabin, behind the dash, actually.") and we both got in and did Appropriate Pilot Things like putting on sunglasses and fiddling with seatbelts.
"CLEAR!" I'd only given it one primer shot since although it hadn't flown today it was still around ninety degrees F ambient. It didn't start, so I pulled the throttle all the way out, thinking I'd flooded it - nope, so...gave it a half inch and BAMbrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Set the radios, checked the intercom, flicked on the beacon lights and headed out for One Four.
Did the runup (there was no traffic in the area or on the ground) and announced our departure. Before rolling onto the runway, I ran through the checklist my CFI had given me - fuel selector valve, trim tab, flaps, mixture, carb heat. All correct. Noted a right crosswind, slight but present, so I held right yoke on the takeoff and rolled it out, ending up with a level yoke as the wheels left the runway. Gave us ten degrees of right heading to correct for the wind and settled back for the climbout. There were all kinds of wakes on the Connecticut River just under our wheels - jet skis, boats, even crowds swimming. Made sense, it was still hot and sticky out as the heat of the day radiated off the ground. I could almost see it streaming upwards as the sun sank towards the horizon.
Came around the pattern and turned final, was happy to see I was right where I wanted to be; I noticed that I am getting better and better at ending up close to the runway threshold rather than floating over it with fifty feet and ten extra knots. Managed to touch down pretty much just past the numbers despite the crosswind of five knots or so, braked moderately and made the turnoff. As I cleaned up the airplane, my CFI said "Yep, just drop me off, I'll go find my handheld and be around if you want to talk."
"Cool." So I did that, dropped him near the fuel pumps. He waved and headed back inside to air conditioning; I opened my side window to let the propwash through and taxied back out to One Four.
I did six landings today - one with him, and five without. No problems. On the second solo landing, I turned final and found the airplane bouncing. I checked instruments, but it was pretty clear that this was just convection turbulence as the sun went down and the varied surfaces below gave up heat at different rates. I held it to seventy-five on final, keeping that extra five MPH as a reserve against gusts, and had to kick the rudder a couple of times as the wind shifted, but still ended up pretty much right over the numbers at sixty-five MPH and the airplane settled to a gentle touchdown.
Turning base for the fifth landing, I was looking for the runway and when I found it where I wanted it, let my gaze traverse the area - and there was something there, something big and unexpected and wrong because it wasn't really moving. Maintained Pilot Face(tm) even though I was alone in the airplane; took about a second to recognize it as a large hot air balloon drifting pretty much directly across the middle of the airfield at around 900 feet and also to recognize that I'd be on the ground by the time our paths crossed, so I announced "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is turning final for One Four Northampton. Advisory, Northampton traffic, hot air balloon is crossing midfield at one thousand feet moving west to east, ten knots, Northampton."
Made my landing, then wondered what I should do - I had planned to do one more go around the pattern but the balloon was drifting from the runway to the downwind leg. Shrugged and taxied back to the threshold of One Four and waited a couple of minutes until the balloon was almost directly in the downwind leg, meaning it would be four or five minutes before I got there, and announced my departure and another advisory about the balloon. As I turned downwind, the ballon was about a half mile to my right, moving away, and perhaps two hundred feet below me. As I came nearer, I saw a flash of reflected light in the basket; somebody was looking at me with binoculars, so I waggled my wings a few times as I passed and they gave me 'shave and a haircut' on the gas burner.
Turned base, then final, and once more found myself coming in juuuust for the threshold. Pulled power out despite my gut wanting it to stay in, and this time found myself flaring right at the numbers, wheels touching almost silently. I didn't have to brake nearly at all to make the turnoff. Nice. Maintain Pilot Face(tm).
So I taxied back into the parking area and shut down. When I got out, my CFI was waiting. "How'd it go?"
"No problems. Got a little surprised by the balloon."
"Yeah? Did you jerk the plane around at all?"
"Nope, this time I held Pilot Face. Didn't even say anything. Had to wait a bit to depart, for him to clear the downwind."
"Aaah, I would've just gone around him. Why didn't you go through him?"
"Would I have gotten a silhouette on the fuselage for that?"
"Damn, gotta remember that next time."
We pushed the airplane back into its parking spot, and tied it down. Inside, he said "You can pretty much fill out the logbook. So, you don't really need me if you just want to go flying - you're cleared for the pattern and if you want to go out to the practice area and do maneuvers - turns around a point, S-turns, etc. - you're cleared for that, just don't get out of sight of the river, OK? I'll be around Tuesday so if it's windy I'll fly with you, and if not, I'll find something else to do."
"So let's see, what do we need to work on?" We thought about it, and came up with:
- Hood time (instrument flying practice with a hood on to block the view out the windows, airsickness city if you're susceptible)
- Flight planning
- ...so that I could fly cross-country
- Night flying
So I'll probably take the airplane up a few times to practice maneuvering solo, and then I'll start working on cross-country stuff. I remember this feeling from the last time, two decades ago - it's funny, it's like that feeling when you first get handed the keys to the car and told "Have fun." Freedom!