Okay. So it's time to put my money where my mouth is. I have been sort of ambling when it came to my flying lessons, mostly because of the massive uncertainty created by the whole 'not having a Medical Certificate' problem. For those who haven't been tuning in, no worry, the issue was that I had been adjudged by an Aviation Medical Examiner
(no, not that kind
of medical examiner
) to have conditions requiring what is called a 'Special Issuance' waiver to allow me to fly airplanes. In my case, having high blood sugar means I have diabetes mellitus
; I have hypertension
, and I have sleep apnea
. All three of these, you see, might mean Bad Things(tm) could happen to me while flying an airplane, and then oh no I might drop the airplane on someone's head oh dear.
We're not going to get into the argument that I have a WAY larger chance of doing harm to WAY more people if those same things happen to me while driving a car on an interstate, and that I spend probably 1.5 gazillion times more time doing just that than I ever will flying a plane.
Anyway, the Special Issuance meant that I had to get a whole bunch of reports from doctors and labs and then send them to the Special Aviation Doctors up in Nashua, NH who make medical-type decisions for the FAA for, like, their job. So I did that. But doing that took nearly two months (hey, *you* try to get three doctors and two medical labs get reports to you during the peak doctor-vacation season).
In any case, there was a real chance that they would decide not to give me a medical certificate; if that happened, I would never be allowed to fly a plane (the 'no' decision is apparently basically a lifetime ban because getting it overturned is so difficult and unheard of that it might well be legally impossible). In that case, any of the (expensive) monies I spent on flight lessons would be a total waste. So, yeah, i was flying, but not that frequently.
Well, that changed. As of last weekend, the FAA and those nice docs in Nashua finally had all the information they needed (the last report only got to them about a week prior) and decided in remarkably good time for government work that yes, I should probably be allowed to fly airplanes so long as I promised to be a good boy and get medical examinations more frequently than the average bear my age to make sure my condition doesn't worsen without them finding out in a timely manner. Put that way, okay, yep, makes sense. BUT ANYWAY they sent me a brand-new totally janky-looking (laser-printed) but TOTALLY VALID Student Pilot Certificate / Medical Certificate. Woohoo!
I didn't have the original in my hands on Tuesday, but I went to flight lessons anyway and told my instructor who said "Great, let's do the three-airport trip again today then." Okay! "So you should get a weather report."
"Oh man, I haven't done this in 20 years. I need a notepad."
"Wait, you didn't do this last time we went?"
"Nope, it was clear blue skies. We just went."
"Oh, right, right. Well, go ahead."
So for those of you who do not fly airplanes or hang around with people who do, let me explain a bit. Weather reports are a very different thing if you're into aviation. An aviation weather report is more detailed, more immediate and more technical than you're probably used to even if you tend to hang out on serious weather geek websites. There are a bunch of ways to get aviation weather reports - so many that the government has helpfully written up a guide - and as you might guess many of them involve computers, but one of the most reliable (still, at least in the U.S.) is to call 1-800-WX-BRIEF. You'll be asked to enter the state you're in on a touch-tone menu, and the call will be routed to a local Flight Service Station and a (human) weather briefer will come on the line and say something like "Weather, good day." And wait.
Now, this is where one of those whole 'talk cool pilot stuff!' bits happens. There's a script, here, and you're both expected to follow it for maximum reliability, to make sure nobody forgets anything, and of course to keep things moving efficiently. You, as the requesting pilot, should open the request with the following information, generally in this order and spoken clearly:
- Your license type and rating
- What type of flight you are planning (VFR or IFR)
- If you have it, the tail number of your aircraft; if not, your name
- If you have it, the aircraft type
- The point of departure
- The estimated time of departure
- Your planned flight altitudes or altitudes if that will change during flight (other than initial climb/descent)
- Your route, unless you are planning to go direct from point of departure to destination - especially include any planned stops (landings) en-route
- Your destination
- Your estimated flight time
- What type of briefing you'd like to receive (standard, outlook, or abbreviated)
So in my case, for example, what I said sounded like this: "Good day, student pilot planning VFR flight, November One Two Seven Three Two, Cessna Skyhawk. Departing Seven Bravo Two at Seventeen Fifteen Zulu, flight level three zero. Landings at Zero Bravo Five and Bravo Alpha Foxtrot, returning to Seven Bravo Two. Estimated time of flight one hour, requesting standard briefing."
You know that picture on the internet of the dog gleefully sticking its open mouth in front of a firehose, with a caption that reads something like WHARRRRGARBL? (Oh, okay, it looks like this if you must know). Yeah, well, that's about to happen to you. The briefer has a lot of information for you and would like to give it to you as fast as you can receive it so that he or she can move on to serve other pilots. While they're nice folks, and they will of course make accommodations if you're a n00b or have a bad connection, it's incumbent upon you to learn to handle this infodump with aplomb so as to make everybody's day better.
A 'standard briefing' is really code for 'tell me everything I might need to know about the flight I just described, which is leaving in less than six hours so you don't really need to use iffy forecast data.' So they will. Roughly, here's what you'll get:
- Adverse conditions, if any. This is anything that might cause you to either decide to alter your proposed route or even cancel your trip entirely. So conditions such as thunderstorms, icing, visibility that violates your flight parameters (e.g. you can't fly VFR if visibility is 250 feet with a ceiling of 500 feet) or turbulence would all be mentioned here.
- Synopsis. This is the 'big picture' of what's causing the conditions you're going to run into, so for example if there's a large cold front moving into your region from the southwest, they'll tell you that. This will give you information about severity, likelihoods, and the direction of weather change.
- Current Conditions. Just what it says; if your flight departure time is within a couple of hours, they'll bundle up a summary (unless you request verbatim) of everything they have on the current conditions at your point of departure and read it out. Generally, for each distinct weather region, you'll get precip if any, temperature, dewpoint, wind direction, speed and type, and visibility. If the Flight Service Center has any PIREPs (PIlot REPorts, i.e. pilots calling in and saying 'hey, I'm at X and the weather is Y, don'tcha know, so let folks know' - this is considered a mitzvah in piloting, since your report is what pilots really care about) you'll get those too at this point.
- Enroute forecast. A summary of the expected conditions along your route at the time you're expected to pass through, giving you any significant changes or things you might need to know. You'll get them in order; for example, for a straight-line flight of some length, you'll probably get a climb-out forecast, an en-route forecast, and a descent forecast.
- Destination forecast. Does what it says on the tin - the forecast conditions for your destination for when you're expected to get there and thus care.
- Winds aloft. At this point they'll probably give you an idea of the wind conditions you'll face along the way - if it's quiet, they might tell you 'negligible' or 'calm' but if you're flying above eight or ten thousand feet that's almost never the case. If you're flying up in turbine altitudes, winds of up to a hundred knots are considered 'normal' so long as they're consistent and not gusty or changing. Ever wonder why it takes an hour less to go laterally across the United States in one direction than in the other (East is shorter, generally)? Yep, this. The jet stream winds can and do add or subtract up to 100 or 150 knots from the ground speed of an aircraft - and on a coast-to-coast flight, that can add up to a whole hour one way or the other.
- NOTAMs come last. A NOTAM - NOtice To AirMen - is a bulletin about something non-weather related that may be relevant to your proposed flight's safety and legality. Examples include planned activities along your route; for example, if one of the airports that lies along your route has skydiving activity planned for the time of your flight, a NOTAM to that effect will probably show up. If a navigational aid (VOR or VORTAC, LORAN) along the way is not operating normally, you'll get told. Anything happening on the ground at relevant airports that might affect airplanes counts. Some things won't be read out unless you request them specifically - NOTAMS pertinent to military operating areas or military training routes along your path, for example; this ensures you identify your path to the briefer and get correct information. GPS outages generally aren't given unless you request them, because GPS is not a required navigational system (yet).
So anyway, I got that. I hadn't gotten one of these, as I said, in two decades. I scribbled furiously and made copious use of my 'sorry, please repeat' privileges. The briefer was nice, as I'd said 'student pilot' at the outset; eventually, I had a nice compendium of weather conditions in our area likely to affect us, and said "Thank you very much and good day," got the briefer's "Good day and safe flight, sir" and hung up. Then I briefed my instructor, condensing the info into what I thought was the 'pertinent stuff.' He thought about it, then nodded and said "Okay, so it sounds like we have about ninety minutes before the rain hits us, right? What's the visibility?"
"Broken three zero, overcast six zero pretty much everywhere, but northwest of Turner's they have broken at two five and overcast at three, moving south. But yeah, an hour before that hits Turner's." Since Turner's was north of us, and a fifteen-minute flight away including climbout and descent, that was OK.
So i went out to the hangar and preflighted 12732 before we put a tow bar on her and pulled her out into the wan light of clouds. She had six quarts of oil (flight minimums for a 172N) and seventeen gallons of fuel. Since she burns around nine an hour, that meant we didn't have to tank up, so in we went and I started her up (after, of course, running the checklist).
"CLEAR!" (you do shout this out the window before starting the engine, doesn't matter if you don't see anybody for miles, you just do. It's safer.)
Once I'd taxiied out, done the runup and then back-taxied for the departure, my CFI said "Go ahead and take us to Turner's, you know the way."
Clicked the mic. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk One Two Seven Three Two departing Three Two Northampton, departing the pattern to the north." Pushed the throttle all the way in and off we went.
"Twenty-five hundred is fine."
So climbed to Two Five and off we went, following the Connecticut River northwards. Eventually, as the clear spot of the airfield hove into sight ahead: "What runway do you think they're using?"
"Well, the winds at 7B2 were pretty much directly down Three Two, and the runway there is One-Six/Three-Four, so I'm going to use Three-Four unless traffic tells me different. Uh, from here, I'm south and west of the field, so I can angle a little left now and then do a wide turn to the right once I'm level with it and come in on a 45-degree approach to the downwind."
"Yup. Go ahead."
Clicked over the COM1 radio to the Turner's freq - which I'd set enroute, haha! - and announced my intentions, then turned right and started to descend to pattern altitude which I recalled was 1400 MSL due to field elevation. "I think I'm a little high and fast, actually, maybe I should circle out to the right and come back..."
""Nah, this can still work, go ahead."
So I did; added in some more flaps and took out the power. Turned base, and then final, and finally-
(which is the sound the tires make when you hit, a sort of chirping noise)
...and we were down. He nodded. I back-taxied and took off again, looking nervously at the clouds straight down to the surface just a bit to our northwest, and turned left a bit early so as to avoid getting too close (VFR minimums and all!) Once I'd gotten turned around, we headed south towards Westfield (Barnes Airfield, BAF) to the south, past our original takeoff point. I fiddled around and got the Barnes VORTAC set in NAV1 and in the DME, pulling out the DME to IDENT and listening until a soft dah-dit dit, dit dah, dit-dit-dah-dit confirmed the station. "Aha, twenty miles."
About halfway there, my instructor reached over and set COM1 to 122.7, and "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is overflying the field at twenty-five hundred feet." Er, um, whoops. Yeah, I should have remembered that.
A few minutes later, I twiddled COM1 to 127.1, the ATIS freq, and listened in to the current terminal information from Barnes - VFR approaches on runway 33 and IFR on 02, winds 331 at fifteen knots gusting to twenty, broken clouds at three thousand, overcast at six, and this was information Golf. Called up Westfield Tower (that's Barnes - the tower identifies as 'Westfield Airport' probably to avoid confusion with the Barnes VORTAC). "Westfield tower, Skyhawk 12732."
"Skyhawk 12732, Westfield."
"Westfield tower, Skyhawk 12732 is with you ten miles north of the field with information Golf, requesting a touch and go and a northern departure back to seven bravo two."
"Skyhawk 12732, cleared to runway 33, report on right base for 33, you're number one for the runway."
"Westfield, thank you."
My instructor waited a few seconds, then reminded me "Close with your tail number, keeps it clear." I knew that. I knew that. No idea why I hadn't. Grr. Thanked him.
"If they're running right hand traffic, I'm going to head down the east side here, along the ridge and turn right onto base."
My CFI dug into his flight kit and after a couple of wrong grabs came up with the airport diagram for BAF and held it out to me, flat, and said "Look out the window, is this what you see?"
Checked; saw a long runway roughly north-south paralleling the ridge, some other tarmac..."Yep."
"Okay, remember you have to stay west of the ridgeline to not stray into Westover's operating area, and remember the wind is trying to push us which way? Yeah, east. Okay."
A few minutes later, as the airport approached, I said "Okay, I need to start descending," and pulled out power and turned on carb heat.
A minute later - far before I thought I was past the end of the runway I was paralleling, which I'd need to be to turn right base for it - he said "Are you gonna turn base for three three or not?"
"What?" I looked out, squinted, looked again - "Aw, crap, that's not three three! What the hell, three three is that thing there..." where I had seen 'some tarmac'. I wasn't paralleling it, I was converging on its track, and I was right about where I should turn base, so I banked right and clicked the mic. "Westfield tower, Skyhawk 12732 is turning right base for Three Three." Added flaps, looked - glideslope indicator lights said high, damn it - and even my naked eye said 'high.' Added some more flap and pulled power out.
"Skyhawk 12732, you're cleared for a departure to the north."
Juggled the plane a bit, but one advantage of Barnes is that it's got huge runways - even the secondary runway I'd missed seeing (HERP DERP PAMCAKES) is a thousand meters or so longer and twenty meters wider than Northampton's tarmac. I flared out too high, probably (in my defense) because the runway was so damn big I couldn't tell, but got the plane on the ground with no real drama, and then started to push in the throttle for the touch-and-go- "Flaps and carb heat, right?" - grimaced, nodded, took out the carb heat and set the flaps up and then put the throttle in. The engine roared and off we went, climbing back into the ever-bumpier air. Headed north and climbed back up to two thousand, keeping a bit lower in deference to the dark cloud ceiling looming over us perhaps six or seven hundred feet higher.
I announced my plan to angle a bit left and then turn right into a downwind, just like I'd done at Turner's, and got approval. When I was roughly over Smith College (I think that clump of buildings is Smith, anyway) I turned right and started descending - and realized I was pretty close to the airport. So I took out a bunch of power and came down a bit quicker; when I got to pattern altitude I pulled the plane level but my CFI leaned over and shoved the throttle back in. "I know you're in the pattern, but you're coming down, and if you don't put power in you're just going to keep sinking!" Right. Right.
At that point, juggled a bit more, but came around base to final ("Remember, we have a headwind, maybe turn base a little early") and brought the plane down to slow, controlled, nearly-silent touchdown - and made the first turnoff, for the first time in a few hops (thank you, headwind!)
Taxiied back in. We parked the plane and headed inside for debrief.
"Okay. Well, what do you think?"
I thought about it. "I have to start doing things earlier."
"Yeah. You kept having to come down in an awful hurry. Your passengers aren't gonna thank you for those popping eardrums, right? And you ended up having to do a bunch of speed management in the pattern, all three times."
"Yeah. And you're being polite, but um, I need to be sure that the runway I'm looking at out the window is the runway I'm supposed to be setting up on. You even showed me the damn diagram and I nodded and smiled and said 'okay' and got it wrong."
"Heh. Yeah. You told me that last time you flew, years ago, on your long cross country you ended up setting up on a runway which wasn't the one the controller thought they'd given you. Think it might have been your fault?"
"...yeah. Admitted it at the time, I'd like it to be known in my defense."
"Okay, then, you know what you need to do. You're better about smooth in terms of maneuvering; you're not yerking the airplane around as much compensating, which is good. You need to work harder on making cockpit tasks smooth too - do things early, remember! Early is good, gives you time to change your mind and do things relaxed. You were good about doing nav stuff and freq management in good time - just carry that attitude over to flight maneuvers. Descend early. Get into the pattern early."
"Okay! So you have your medical, lets do landings next time and get you ready to go. After that, we'll work on you being able to do the local airport tour by yourself, and then we start worrying about technicals like hood time and localizer approaches and other checkboxes for the checkride."
And we shook hands before I headed back to my car.