Saturday, December 21, 2013

Musings on training

I have a mechanical engineering degree; my dad is an aeronautical engineer, and I have been interested in airplanes since I was 3 years old. I have flown with friends and lurked on aviation mailing lists for decades. I have built a riveted aluminum bicycle (here, here) just for the chance to practice airframe construction techniques. And I come to aviation at the age of 46, not because it's the most convenient thing for me to do, but because I'm scared of getting too old and I've already had a brush with thyroid cancer that reminded me of my own mortality. I have already taken the FAA written test with a score of 98%.

So what I'm trying to say is that I bring baggage, expectations and ego to this process.

One of my frustrations with training with Alice last time was that I was overwhelmed with way too many things to keep track of, and I didn't feel like I was learning anything. Perhaps I like to have a bit of a feeling of control over my surroundings? Whatever the case, it's clear that a training program for me may be distinct from one for someone else.

At the same time, I was also clearly expecting to have far more facility than I actually did. I failed to use a checklist on startup. Alice let me dig myself in and I failed to yell CLEAR and failed to use brakes; the plane dragged forward and Alice stepped on the brakes for me. (How is that possible? I'm so good with checklists when flying right seat with others.) I taxied slowly on purpose, but Alice said I could (should? that's always the confusion) taxi a bit faster; I tried that, and ended up wallowing badly. I thought I could do the radio calls, but ended up failing miserably and ended up asking Alice to take over. (How could that happen when I've spent hours at KPAO listening to the radio and following inbound and outbound flights?)

Alice said I needed to learn how the controls interact, how changing one thing makes the other thing change. Well duh! That's exactly why I am so tentative on the throttle on the takeoff run, because I expect this big nasty propeller, without any speed and so without any rudder authority to speak of, will wheel me over into the weeds on the left before I can react and make a mess of my day! I'm all too aware of the various and sundry couplings! I just want some experience with one thing at a time so I can learn to control them!

Yesterday, I was watching a video of someone doing a startup and takeoff in a C152 and the strongest emotion I had was fear (as in, performance anxiety)!

I believe what I most need right now is slow flight experience. I would like to be able to practice first without flaps, then add the flaps later. The minimal level of complexity is to manipulate the throttle and elevator (and balance out the rest of the controls) and apply carb heat below the green RPM arc. Everything else is optional.

I would also like to practice in a manner where I control the first derivative, then the setpoint. In other words, if I am trying to maintain altitude, my first attempt should be while trying only to arrest any climb or descent. Wherever I end up, I don't try to go back to the original altitude; I just take where I am as my new point and try to stay there. The reason is that, while starting out, my deviations are large, and so by the time all is said and done, returning from where I am back to my chosen altitude is itself a maneuver and should be avoided.

The next step, after being able to hold the rate at zero, is to practice making small corrections to return to setpoint.

So I would probably want to do:
  • Transition from cruise to slow flight (almost stalled) and back, smoothly, feeding in or retarding throttle as needed, around target altitude, become familiar with reversed control (back side of power curve);
  • Level change at various speeds;
  • Now do the same thing while adding flaps into the mix.
Not to forget lateral maneuvering, I would also want to do:
  • Level turns at a given (cruise) speed and throttle setting; 
  • Coordination exercises (Dutch rolling back and forth while keeping the nose straight).
If I can get these right, then I can do:
  • Level turns at various speeds, including slow flight with flaps;
  • Glideslope adjustment during landing.


  1. It is so great that you're embarking on this journey. It sounds to me like you're taking on a lot in your early lessons. As I think back to my first lesson, all we did was climbing and descending turns (and every time I'm in a different model of airplane, I do the same thing my first lesson - get a feel for it). Yes, I spoke on the radio, but only dumbly repeating what my instructor was saying.

    The thing about being in the air is that (for me, anyway) brain function goes WAY down. That's why these early lessons are to start building "second nature" - after a while, you don't think about how to coordinate controls, how to respond on the radio, how to change airplane configurations. It's all habit, which frees up the pilot's limited brain capacity to focus on exception conditions.

    Which brings us to slow flight. My advice would be to use your flaps during your transition to slow flight. The reason is that by doing so, you build the habit of how to slow the airplane down (most notably, for landing). The procedure's then always the same: 110kts, 10 degrees, 90kts, 20 degrees, 75kts, 30 degrees (or whatever). You then know at every point how the airplane will feel. And in complex airplanes, having this consistent procedure is very important - even moreso in reverse, for go-arounds!

    And, for now (if possible), I'd suggest you stop trying to figure out what to say on the radio - have your instructor just tell you what to say. At this point, you should be almost dumbly building habits, not thinking about what you're doing during flying (that's too hard). It may be worthwhile to find a way to replay the radio comm after the fact (either record it yourself, or find yourself on LiveATC), when you have the time and brain space to process/analyze/learn from it.

    Disclaimer: I am NOT a CFI, though I have aspirations! Advice is worth what you paid for it, and all that.. :-)

    1. Thanks ... that's helpful. I guess I'm trying to figure out how much of the "procedure" stuff is my instructor's personal choice versus just The Way Things Are Done [tm]. Isn't it better to be able to smoothly go from any phase of flight to another, while getting the "feel" for how to make the necessary control inputs? Isn't the goal at this point to Give Me Wings [tm] rather than to merely memorize procedures for going from one known point to another? Am I not aiming for the ability to dance in the air, control the airplane and hold any one variable constant while changing the others? Turn at constant altitude, slow down at constant altitude, climb while maintaining constant pitch, cut off power and climb to the point of stall then push over and glide, ... ?

    2. Another way to think about it may be that my early training is getting me to internalize certain procedures so I can take off, land and maneuver safely, after which I can solo, and *then* I can go to a safe altitude and try out all these different "feel" maneuvers to my heart's content?

  2. I think your last comment is how I'm thinking of it - I think that some abilities just naturally follow from others. For example if you master controls in slow flight, it makes the same controls much easier at cruise, without even working on or thinking about the latter.

    Also, I didn't mean to say that you should be memorizing procedures - just that you should be building muscle memory, which is not a thinking process!