Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Pacific Time

Yesterday was likely the most challenging airports I've visited all in one day. We flew up from Scottsdale, AZ toward Prescott, just to see the view, and then east to Sonoma, AZ (I think that was the name, but suddenly I am blanking). Could be the most beautiful place I've ever seen. We flew below the rims of the most amazing red rock canyons I've ever imagined. Made the landing there, and headed north. Tuba City, AZ was the next stop. It got the award for most deserted place we've been so far. But that award was rescinded a couple hours later.

We made a stop at Page, AZ for fuel and lunch, then flew down into Marble Canyon. Wow. More later on that. Then we ran along the Utah Border and stopped at St. George, UT for more fuel. Then the most challenging part of the whole deal: the small deserted airstrips between there and Boulder City, NV, where we ended the day. More on that when I get the chance.

This morning, it is windy with a few small rain showers. Our plan is to run northwest to Death Valley, CA.

Monday, January 30, 2006

A little more detail

A little more information now, on our trip so far:

1/24: SHD-TRI-GCY-BNA, 6.0 flight hours.

1/25: BNA-PHT-CEY-M34-CIR-FAM-JEF-BUM-EMP-ICT, 7.9 flight hours.

1/26: ICT-DDC-GCK-MCK, 3.7 flight hours.

1/27: MCK-AKO-CYS-GXY-PUB, 5.2 flight hours.

1/28: PUB-AEG-GUP-INW-SDL, 8.2 flight hours.

TOTALS: 31.0 flight hours
20 new airports not previously visited
4 new states previously not flown into
highest elevation airport so far: GUP, 6,472 feet above sea level.

This morning, we set off, but we aren't yet sure where. The preferred route will take us from Scottsdale to Prescott. From there, we will go toward Sedona and Flagstaff, but will probably not land at either of those, for density altitude considerations. I think as it is, we are probably limited to less than 7,000 foot field elevations, and even those will require space around them to maneuver while climbing slowly.

From there, we may go north and get to Page Municipal, on Lake Powell in Glen Canyon. I would like to make a small side trip into Marble Canyon, only 12 miles from there. That is essentially the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Shouldn't be a major issue there.

Either we will spend the night there, or press on. Hopefully the next segment after that will take us into southern Utah, and around the canyon toward Las Vegas. After that, if all goes well, we are heading to Death Valley.

From there, who knows. More later.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Mountain Time Zone

What an adventure so far. Not much time at the moment, so just a quick update:

We left Tuesday morning, and fought headwinds, making it only to Nashville, TN. Next day we set out very early, and ran by Kentucky Lake, where we ended up seeing the path of destruction of a small tornado, about a mile long, and a couple hundred feet wide.

After more fighting of the winds, we had to find a place to sleep, with a reasonable chance of a good hotel. We chose Wichita, Kansas. Not a bad place at all. Again, early morning departure. This time, we headed farther west, and got a landing at Dodge City. But we did only a touch & go, because we had to get out of Dodge. Rain was coming in, some of which we flew through. The wind was picking up quite a bit, and headwinds out there had reduced our groundspeed to the equivalent of highway speeds (about 60 knots). A quick stop at another airport northwest of there to get fuel, then turning north to get away from the rain, we leveled off and got a groundspeed of 170 knots. We made it to McCook, Nebraska. There, the wind finally caught up with us. Our 3 landings for the day were made in steady 16-18 knot winds, with gusts to 27-28. That was ok for me, but not for DC. By the time we finished lunch though, winds were gusting 35 knots, and I figured we ought to call it a day.

Next morning looked a lot better, so we ran out from there toward Akron, Colorado. There, we tested the performance of the plane a bit, to make sure we knew how the density altitude would affect us. At 4,700 feet above sea level, it wasn't terrible, but we were headed from there to Cheyenne, Wyoming, at over 6,000 feet, so we wanted to be sure. Turned out to be no problems at all.

After Cheyenne, we ran south to Greeley, CO for lunch. A couple of buffalo burgers later, we took off and flew around the west side of Denver to get a good view of the mountains. Ended the day in Pueblo, CO.

Yesterday, was our long day so far. From Pueblo, we ran south toward Santa Fe, New Mexico. We planned a landing there, but had to divert. The winds were a but turbulent, and clouds were still hanging around, which would have forced us to fly lower than I wanted, around a couple of those passes. We had already crossed one pass only a thousand feet above terrain to the sides, but adding clouds made it unpleasant. We ran farther south instead, until we could turn west and get to Albuquerque. Landed at my old nemesis, Double Eagle airport, just northwest of Albuquerque. There, three years ago, Rich and I discovered how badly a plane can do on takeoff. On the long runway (7,400 feet long), with what turned out to be a dog of a plane, with a dog-tired engine, we had barely cleared the ground on takeoff. I wanted another shot at it.

We ended up using the shorter runway because of the winds. 5,900 feet long, with a density altitude of 6,200 feet. Again, no issues. Then, running farther west, we had to climb quite a bit to get over the continental divide. We did make it up to 12,700 feet at one point, but felt we would do better the lower we could fly, from there on.

Another airport, on the border ot Arizona was our next landing (I forget the name right now). I just wanted a touch & go, for the sake of it. Also, that would be another one over 6,000 feet up. Not a big issue. Then we landed at Winslow, Arizona for fuel, and headed to our final destination for the day, Scottsdale, Arizona, just barely north and under the class B airspace of Phoenix.

We had a nice dinner last night, and restful sleep. Today is a rest day, then we head either to California, or up toward Utah. Who knows.

More updates later, possibly one later tonight.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The $10,000 Hamburger

Pilots all know about the $100 hamburger. Five bucks for the burger, ninety-five for the transportation. Today, DC and I begin our quest for the $10,000 burger.

We were set to go to Memphis at first, but we decided instead on St. Louis. This morning we were greeted with heavy fog, and no real choices but to sit and wait. But the fog is lifting nicely, and the official flight test should be underway in just a few minutes. Assuming all goes well, the autopilot does its job, etc, then we should be off about 11AM.

Now, we are back to deciding on Memphis, to avoid the strongest headwinds. Headwinds no matter what, so we may only average about 80 knots across the ground. But the straight flight to St. Louis would be closer to 65-70 knots.

Anyway, the excitement builds. Anything significantly west of here by the end of the day would be fine with us.

More details to follow, when there is something to report. And so, the quest begins.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Almost ready to go

Getting close to launch now. We expect to depart Monday morning, should all go well with the last bits of installation on the autopilot. Tenative plan is still Memphis on the first day, but weather will be the ultimate deciding factor there.

I've effectively eliminated working with any students for the last few days beforehand, to give me time to get all the little details worked out. My most recent student- Brad- has made good progress in the short time we've worked together, but I will not get to be the one to endorse him for the first solo. Two weeks with constant scheduling and weather issues, just wasn't enough time for that to get done.

I've started feeling that sense of relief, from having the burden of daily operations lifted, and a bit of cautious feeling, hoping I haven't forgotten anything, and a whole bunch of excitement. DC doesn't quite know what he's getting into. My last trip west, we spent plenty of that time dealing with weather delays. There are a few hot spots for weather right now, but no way to predict anything about the entire next month, so we will just have to make that a daily decision, figuring out where the weather is, and where to go to avoid it.

So, preparations continue.....

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Taking it to the woodshed

So I had that much-needed conversation with Mrs. Confusion today. Unfortunately, it had to be by phone. My intention here, was not to anger her, but to motivate her to either start working at this for real, or give up completely. I had wanted to get her in, and administer the very same pre-solo written test I gave her 8 months ago. I would bet good money she couldn't pass it. (I told her as much).

The gist of it all was, if she was willing to put forth some actual effort to gain and retain the knowledge, and show up with real effort and mental readiness to be flying, then I would help her in any way I can, once I get back from this trip. If not, then we are done flying. As much as I like the money, I am not willing to sit there and keep saying she's almost ready, when I know she isn't.

Not surprisingly, I got a call about 15 minutes later. It was the other instructor she deals with a little bit. She went crying to her husband, and he called this guy, to call me and get a little explanation. Now, I like this guy. We had a bit of falling out at points, and I can't agree with some of the things he both did and allowed to happen when he owned the flight school. But he is still likable. I explained the situation, and discussed it with him in detail, telling him that I'm headed west for a month or so. Then I wished him luck. I have no doubt that she will start flying exclusively with him, and would, regardless of whether or not I was leaving. I have at least some doubts that I will ever get paid for the last $300 or so that she owes me.

So I made it clear that I had to upset her a little, in order to get the point across. I've been really tactful about it for way too long, and she has never processed a single bit of that. So being nice just didn't work. I still suspect that she just doesn't have the capacity for actual proficiency. I'd love to believe I am wrong about that.

Either way, I had to be honest about it all. This other instructor may well get her through the license. I've doubted it before, and been wrong. He may well cut some corners to do it. I'm sure he has more patience for some of these things than I do, so perhaps he will manage. I have plenty of patience for lack of talent, but very little for lack of effort. Maybe she will actually learn something, maybe not, but that is his job now.

So I wished him luck. He's gonna be needing it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Westward, how

So, this has been a long time coming. One thing about DC's experience so far in aviation, is that the majority of it was spent in either training, or waiting for the retest. So far, he hasn't had much chance to just enjoy. Now, we are getting ready to do the enjoying, and do it in style.

We've been discussing a trip west for several months, and we kept that in mind while looking for a new plane to buy. We wanted to be able to do significant travel in this plane. Now, with the schools merging, and my finishing checking the instructors out in the Diamond aircraft, the opportunity has finally come. We have done plenty of day trips, and the occasional overnight. (Once, by accident- literally). Now the time has come to do something worthy of our intentions.

Both of us are capable of taking a huge chunk of time away, so we decided to spend 3-4 weeks just flying around. He wants to see the Rocky Mountains. We both want to see anything we haven't seen before. I desperately want to see Oregon, since that is the only state I've never visited. But most areas out there, I haven't seen since I was a child. So we are making a beeline west, planning to spend time flying around and having fun. If we get sick of each other quickly, then we come back earlier. If we are having fun, then we keep going, maybe extending it to two months.

Planned departure is tenatively set for sometime between Saturday this week, and Tuesday next week. First goal, is to get some distance from the places we already know so well. We figure with the climb prop on this plane, and trying to keep fuel burn under 6 gallons per hour, we will average about 100 knots. So day one's goal is either St. Louis or Memphis. If the weather cooperates. That's probably 7 hours of flying, figuring on a headwind. Add in some landings at various airports along the way, just for fun, and that will be maybe 9 hours.

Day 2, maybe bleeding into day 3, we head toward Denver. Thats where the fun begins. Plenty of airports around there that will be too short or too high an elevation for us to handle in this plane at max gross weight. Plus, plenty of rather forbidding terrain, especially in winter. So we have a bit of a plan, but no idea how feasible it will all be.

From past experience, I know there will be plenty of days that the weather will stop us cold. A single overnight can easily turn into 4-5 days. But we aren't in any hurry.

We won't be able to head directly west from Denver, since most of those airports are too high up for us. So the plan is to head south, toward Albuquerque, NM. I remember the Double Eagle airport (KAEG) just west of there, and the nice cafe they have, and I sure wouldn't mind visiting there again.

I'd like to turn back toward the north there, and track up along western Colorado, into Utah, and maybe back down near the Grand Canyon. I got cheated out of a good view of the canyon 3 years ago, and it would be nice to solve that. maybe we can manage an overflight, if I can figure out the rules on that.

Ideally, the next area I would like to see is Death Valley. There, we have the lowest terrain in the country, (282 feet below sea level), a scant 75 nautical miles from Mt. Whitney, the highest in the lower 48 states, at 14,491 feet. And I'm thinking that winter in Death Valley might prove more enjoyable than summer.

If all goes well, we will make our way to the coast, and fly the coastline up toward Seattle, but with plenty of side-trips inland, maybe to Lake Tahoe, or anywhere else that strikes our fancy. From there, who knows? So much to see, I hardly know where to begin. Yellowstone, the badlands, etc. One goal, though I don't know how feasible it is yet, would be to fly the Snake River Canyon. The river is, in places, more than 7,000 feet below the highest mountains on either side. Deeper than the Grand Canyon, and narrower, from what I hear.

So much to do, and plenty of time to do it. I plan to give updates on here some, and Rich may do a few, when I can't get to an internet connection. In the meantime, anyone with ideas on what to do, where to go, etc, please feel free to comment and give me ideas.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Confusion sets in a little deeper

On to the next part of the update. Mrs. Confusion.

Let me preface this discussion: some people should not fly. She is one of them. So is her husband. Her husband already has a license, and thinks he will get an instrument rating before long. She thinks she will have a private license before long. Both are most likely wrong. I can't do anything about him, but my responsibilities require me to stop teaching her.

Recognize, that perfection is basically impossible, and most pilots understand that. But the majority of truly skilled pilots share a common trait: they refuse to accept anything less. They know the FAA requirements, and can consistently perform better than that, not because they are all highly gifted, but often simply for refusing to be average. People who accept mediocrity should not be pilots. Ever.

My evaluation of Mrs. Confusion may sound harsh, but bear in mind, that everything required to get a license has been presented to her more times than I care to recall. She currently has about double what most people need to complete a license (right now, nearing 150 flight hours).

We flew a few days ago, and I suspected this was a waste of time, but since we hadn't flown lately, I wanted to give her a last chance. At some point, I have to give up on her, but one more try seemed appropriate.

I started her training nearly two years ago now, and knew that she would be trouble, and she would be slow, but hoped she would put some actual effort into this. I told her then, that it would require real studying, and a concerted effort to perform correctly, or it would all be a waste. I flew a while with her before leaving the school. After a few months, she followed me over. My first talk with her then, was that she should be prepared for a harsh evaluation. I knew that the instructor she had bene using, was prone to taking short-cuts. Good guy, but not truly serious about turning a student into a proficient and safe pilot. Up front, I told her I would expect studying on a consistent basis. A few months ago I actually suspended all her flying for a while, until she showed me she actually was studying.

Apparently, the grey matter in between her ears does not operate in the recognized manner of normal sapient creatures. She just doesn't get it. At the beginning of the flight, I explained that since she is anxious to go to a checkride, I was going to be in examiner mode. Not teaching, just telling her which task to perform, and expecting her to do it. I've been saying for 8 months that I expect her to study and know the test standards. She knew from previous flights that when I say I am in that mode, I am not there to help her, and I won't help her. I'll either say she passed that portion, or I will say she failed it. We are much too far along for her to not know the answer before I say it though, or to not understand how to do things properly.

I knew going in that I was going to have to be harsh about it. She thinks she is almost ready, and that is so far from the truth. And from my own post-flight briefings, she has no basis for believing that. I've said many times that the onus is on her. She's been taught every single thing over and over, but she isn't going anywhere until she starts performing up to standards on a routine basis.

Here, I would describe the flight in more detail, but it would only make me irritated. Not a single thing on the flight was performed properly. Nothing. Very few portions were even up to the standards I expect of a student approaching a first solo flight. There were times I had to take the controls from her, for safety reasons. Being 200 feet over a cell tower, 4 miles from the airport is a really good example. Losing several hundred feet during a steep turn that wasnt actually steep, is another. She couldn't figure out where to go to practice the maneuvers, and asked me, even though I have a solid history of trying to force her to make safe decisions without my help. She couldn't grasp how to transition from slow flight with flaps, to slow flight without flaps. We've only done that one a few hundred times. Stalls, were worse than I expect of a 10-hour student pilot. She couldn't make a safe entry to the pattern. On crosswind, she had no idea if the last plane used the same runway she was planning on, or how long ago that was, or any of that, and hadn't asked for any advisory from unicom.

She usually tries to blame anything or anyone but herself. It is never her fault. If she didn't study at all in the last two weeks, it is because her business is busy. Sure, I understand that, but it is still on her to find that time. Not my fault. Occasionally, she will actually say "that was me" when something goes wrong. I've started responding by saying "I know it was you. There are no other options. I'm not touching the controls, and the plane doesn't fly itself, so everything that goes wrong here is your fault."

That may sound harsh, but I have to be honest. Making excuses will not turn her into a pilot. I have never expected skill from a student who hadn't been taught that skill numerous times. We've done hundreds upon hundreds of steep turns and stalls though, and I expect her to know these.

To cap off the flight, we ended by having her become lost 3 miles from the airport. Perfect visibility outside, not a cloud around, numerous geographic and man-made features staring up at us, all very obviously telling where the airport was. She's only lived 4 miles from that very spot for the last 5 years, and that spot is a significant highway intersection that she drives past every single day. And all the flying she has ever done, started and ended right at this very airport 3 miles away which I was curently staring at. With mountains spread the way they are around this valley, I have never visited a place that was easier to remain unlost in. The terrain makes it pathetically easy. I know not all people have a good sense of direction or scale, but I still can't fathom how after all this time, she can't have known how to look southeast from the interstate directly under us, to see the airport directly south of the road she drives to get to the airport every time.

So, I have officially given up on a student now. I've dealt with plenty that were never going to get their licenses, and recognized it themselves quickly. This is the first time I've ever had to give up completely on someone who is absolutely convinced she is capable.

Maybe she will get a license someday. But I know her too well now, to have my signature on her application. If she does get a license, I suspect it won't be more than a few months after, when she does something truly stupid, and if she is lucky, survives. And I hope nobody else gets caught in that. For my part, it is over. I was so irritated at the end of the last flight, all I did was get out of the plane and walk away, saying I would call her. The next conversation is to explain that the only way she can ever become a safe pilot, is to put a whole lot more effort into it than she is displaying. I understand flight skills getting rusty at times, but there is no excuse for lack of knowledge now. There is no excuse for her inability to tell me what causes a wing to stall. (yes, I asked her that, and no, she had no idea).

Barring an extreme effort on her part, (something I can't even imagine at this point), then my part in this is over. She can either quit, or find someone else to teach her.

I wish it was my place to also tell her husband that he really shouldn't be a pilot either. I trained him some too, and until flying with her, thought him to be the most difficult student I had ever seen. Unfortunately, after I left that equation, he found an instructor whose standards weren't very high, and then he had a lucky day on the test. I've flown with him since then, and found no improvement there. So that is just a matter of time.

Finally, a brand new entry!

A week or two away from writing entries turned into months. Sorry about that. Life has been a bit crazy in general lately.

So, picking up from October, here's what has happened:

DC and I flew a lot in preparation for his retest. Practically every day. I could see the stress in his eyes, but it was not for his own sake. He was stressed knowing that he wanted me to look good, knowing that if he failed, then we would both look bad, and the crash would look just like two pilots performing poorly.

In late November he finally got his chance. We spoke with the local DPE (designated pilot examiner) who I use, and he came out to fly with DC the day before. He had personally taught the FAA inspector we were meeting the next day, so that couldn't hurt. Our DPE is a really good guy, and I have grown to respect him tremendously over the 5 years I have known him. He really helped calm DC's nerves that day.

When we showed up at Louisa County Airport (KLKU) the next day, we met with the inspector. After a slightly weak oral exam (not bad though), they went to fly. It still hung in the balance there. If the landings went well, that would be the whole test. If not, then the test would get longer.

I watched helplessly from the ramp as they taxied out. Then, I witnessed three of the most beautiful, spot-on, feather-soft landings I've ever seen from him. And then it was over. Just like that, the months-long frustration was over. The inspector was thoroughly impressed with his technique, and not a single fault was found on the flight.

You know the kind of stress that grips you when something major is coming up. Spend four months like that, and then suddenly the relief sets in. We took a short break from some of the flying there, and waited for DC's new plane to arrive.

He had ordered a Symphony SA-160, and we were just waiting to see if he would have to cancel that order. This time, we decided to buy a real airplane. DC had previously had me fly it with the dealer rep a couple of times, to make sure I was happy with it, before he was willing to move forward. What I found was a craft that handles beautifully. The stall is the most docile I have seen in a plane. The only fault I found was what felt like a lack of climb performance. Most of that came to two reasons: First, was the shape of the cowling, which for some reason made me constantly feel as if we were mushing toward the stall. That took me several flights to start really getting accustomed to it. Secondly, I think the manufacturer used a prop that would eke a few extra knots out on the top end, just to get a few extra sales.

I noticed that they also sold a climb propeller, and told him we would have to have that. Virginia isn't extremely mountainous, but here at the home base, density altitude can get to about 4,000 feet on a warm summer day. Within a short flight, we can be at Hot Springs, VA, the highest paved public airport in the east, at almost 3,800 feet up. In the summer there, the density altitude can easily be approaching 7,000 feet.

Plus, the biggest reason we needed the climb prop: planning a trip out west. The plane's service ceiling is 16,000 feet, but we were going to need a plane that could legitimately climb out from fields at 6,000 or more, even at maximum weight.

More on that trip planning in the next entry.

The other big news was that we decided to merge with the other flight school on the field. I had originally been looking for a buy-out, to snag their FAR part 141 status. The biggest factor to me was the manager/ chief flight instructor. Nice enough guy, but mainly because the man is a selling machine. But I know him well enough to know better. He had owned the school when I first we there as a student, 5 years ago. He sold it to one of the instructors, but stuck around. Then that owner sold it to the curent owners, but the first owner still stuck around. And he was the major problem.

Reputation is everything, and he has a bad one. Shortcuts on maintenance, cheating customers out of what they had paid for, breaking contracts, you name it. And philosophically, I knew that I would be unwilling to work with him, especially if he was giving the orders. So I made clear that regardless of how the merger went, if he remained there, I would not.

Thankfully, the owners were starting to see the same problems, and fired him. They verbally committed to doing things the right way, and to starting to rebuild a proper reputation, and working toward developing a school that could legitimately compete across the country for students. With that, I became willing to discuss it.

We don't yet know how it will all go. There is discussion of putting me in as the official chief flight instructor, but I am still a little bit shy of the required flight experience. And I recognize how much work that is. I really don't know if they are willing to pay what the job is worth. So that end of it remains open. I'm teaching more now, having access to more students, so the income is up a bit. But this isn't my long-term ambition. If the job goes to me and they pay properly, then I'll consider it. If not, then I'm looking elsewhere. I can pick up a job in charter easily enough, especially since I don't mind moving and being on the road a lot, so that may be the route I take.

That's all for this entry, for now. Later on, today or tomorrow, I'll tackle the Mrs. Confusion situation. That got more interesting. And I'll tell about the bigger news: the upcoming loooooooong cross-country flight.