Are Drones a Legitimate part of “Aviation”? (A: We’d better treat them that way, for our own good.)

I wrote the following email last month to the host of an aviation podcast I listen to, when he asked for feedback from listeners about whether airshows should have drone sections, which some have started to do. A few weeks later, AOPA, which I joined last year when I started flight training, made news in aviation circles with their decision to invite drone operators to be members. With the status of drones in aviation a hot topic right now, I decided to post the letter I’d written here. I’m relatively new to both worlds, so that’s the perspective that I come to this with: I’m not so entrenched in one or the other as to have a tribe to root for, but I’m not so much an outsider as to have no concept of the issues involved.

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I’m also a systems analyst by training and my habit when it comes to a transitional period like the one we’re in currently is to try to figure out what the core economics imply for final state of the system. In this case, that sure seems to imply an eventual inevitable end of most commercial manned aviation, though it will take to while to happen. Given that future, my concern then becomes what can be done to either postpone the end of manned aviation, or to leave a space for it in the airspace at least for recreational purposes.

Here’s the email.

As preface, I have a foot in both worlds. I have been flying a drone recreationally for about a year now and I earned my FAA commercial drone rating on the second day it was available last year, but I also just did my first solo toward my Private Pilot on Friday. (In a Grumman Cheetah). I’m in my late thirties and in my case, flying the drone rekindled something I had forgotten about and not seriously considered in my earlier youth. Drone flights in the park led to flight simulators, led to a discovery flight.

It will take a while, but it seems inevitable that drones or drone-like things scale up and become manned. The three worlds of little toy and mission-specific drones, autonomous flying vehicles like the ones that Uber and Google are working on, and traditional GA will cross-pollinate and converge and it will become harder and harder to draw lines that cleanly separate this from that. Nobody is going to need a pilot certificate to take a flying Uber and most people don’t need a pilot cert to fly a drone (but even if you do, and I speak from experience, it’s much cheaper and easier to get than Private or even Sport pilot, and I don’t see that changing). So these things do and will have a much lower barrier to entry once they are developed. That means there will be a lot more people using and piloting drones and taking a flying Uber than people getting a traditional GA rating. The difference in scale will just be staggering.

Maybe that means fixed-wing GA goes away eventually, but I hope it doesn’t. There is an opportunity here for the GA community to welcome drone operators and operations, build relationships and participate in extending and updating rules and norms so that everyone can coexist. I think having all three communicating and sharing space and experiences with each other, like at an air show, is going to be important to that. If GA as a community tries to ignore drones as “something else”, I don’t think that’s going to end well for GA, because there will be a lot more of them than us, and the tables could easily turn: we’re concerned about drones in the airspace, but there will come a time when the general public starts to become concerned that these non-automated, human-piloted aircraft are a danger to their safe airborne Uber. I think we’d better do what we can to be a “we” instead of an “us and them” before that happens. We have an opportunity to forge great relationships across the gap here and help create some kind of future for GA, or to ignore the coming changes and let GA become something people used to do.

But don’t even get me started on whether there should be a car show at an air show. Or what a flying car means for that question…

Things are Starting to Accelerate

If you followed this from the beginning, you’ll know that my original plan had been to take a 3 week vacation and do accelerated flight training. That didn’t work out, and I’m glad it didn’t: flying twice a week built up my hours quickly enough, and gave me some time between lessons to absorb what I’d learned, but even more importantly it gave me time to get comfortable with my skills and my fear along the way. I don’t think accelerated training would have been more than I could handle, but it definitely would have required me to manage and overcome more acute apprehension in the early phases.

That said, committing two two-a-weeks has moved me along pretty well. In fact, if I hadn’t lost a total of eight weeks along the way to 100-hour inspections, new avionics, freak February tornadoes and the occasional canceled flight for my instructor to go fly somebody in their jet, I’d be closing right in on 40 flight hours by now, which is the minimum to take the private pilot checkride. Flight training is expensive, but before I got started I made sure I had the money set aside and earmarked so that I wouldn’t have to stop midway for lack of funds. So I’m right at 20 hours right now, but it looks like things are about to accelerate.

I was supposed to fly yesterday, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. My instructor John was going to be running late and wasn’t sure if he’d make it in time. If it had been a pretty day, I’d have been allowed to fly solo instead, but all day long it was cold, overcast at 1500 feet, and a 10 knot crosswind gusting to 20, which is both well beyond what I’m supposed to take on flying solo right now (John’s endorsement in my log book limits me to 7 knot crosswinds) and well beyond what I’d have wanted to take on at my current skill level, endorsement or no.

So that meant that today I flew with John on an instructional flight for the first time since my two to-date solos. We introduced short field and soft field takeoffs and landings. Everything about short and soft field operations makes sense individually, but two techniques times takeoff and landing is four new maneuvers introduced all at once, so as usual it was a bit of a firehose.

On a soft field takeoff, you’re supposed to get the wheels off the ground and then accelerate in ground affect before climbing. That’s just naturally what would happen, so I hear, in an old 60hp machine from the 50s, but the Cheetah’s 150 horsepower means that it’s actually difficult to do that: by the time you’re off the ground, it’s also still gaining speed even while climbing and wanting to climb (successfully) out of ground effect, so you have to push forward on the stick and intentionally fly above the runway to demonstrate that you know the procedure, even though it’s not actually necessary or natural in that airplane. Seems a bit backward to me.

The wind was straight down the runway for most of today’s practice, until the very end when it was swirling so that it was straight down the runway on the far end and a direct crosswind down where the sock is (and where we were operating). It was gusting so that the stall horn kept blaring at us off and on during the short field takeoff, and as with accelerated stalls, the correct nose attitude in short field takeoff is much higher than I was expecting, and took a little getting used to. I only reached the correct attitude one time; I kept letting the nose lower to shut that horn up the other times. John explained that the attitude was correct and the horn was going off because of the gusts. I flew most of my short-fields a little nose-low because of that, to keep the horn from going off so and keep a little better margin in those gusts, and if John disagreed with me when I explained that, he didn’t argue.

My scorecard:

* One decent soft field takeoff for three attempts. The other two, I didn’t keep the plane in ground effect very well; on a cold day like today that Cheetah just wants to climb.
* Maybe one decent soft field landing for three attempts. I wasn’t very happy with any of them really.
* Two decent short field takeoffs for three attempts. Short field takeoff didn’t seem very challenging, you just have to get comfortable getting that nose attitude high.
* One decent short field landing for three attempts, but only just. The other two, I was too high or too fast and blew past the first taxi turnoff. I’m not sure that third one would have passed the checkride either, but it was maybe in the ballpark.

None of them were particularly great. I’ve got some practice to do. Encouragingly, my better attempts were my last attempt in all three cases, so that argues that some practice may bring quick improvements, rather than that they were random.

I mentioned before that I think things are about to accelerate. Weather permitting, next week I’ll do my first night flight and my first landing at another airport, and the week after that we have scheduled to do both my dual cross-country and my solo cross-country. If none of that gets canceled, then it’s a lot of practice and a lot of hours in a short period of time. Now that I can fly solo, I can fly and get some practice time in even if John can’t, as long as the weather is OK, and cross-countries build up hours fast. Things are moving.

One final note: while we were doing all that work, I noticed that somebody had parked a Cirrus over at the FBO, so had to go over and ogle it before I left the field. Haters will hate, but that is a nice airplane.

The Killing Zone

I just finished reading The Killing Zone by Paul Craig. Be sure you get the second edition; the first edition is nearly 20 years old now and a lot has changed since then. Just before that book, I had read Situational Awareness, also by Craig. The books are very similar: both are largely made up of transcripts of NTSB and NASA investigations and reports of various accidents or close calls, followed by discussion. The Killing Zone builds up its thesis over the entire book but really brings it all home in the last chapter, and has helped convince me that I should go for instrument and perhaps even commercial ratings sooner rather than later after I pass my checkride. I was already planning on continuing to fly with my instructor every few months, knowing that I’d be going for the instrument rating eventually, but The Killing Zone makes a compelling argument that continuing to learn and hone your skills for those higher ratings can really make a big difference in how safe you stay as a pilot.

Calling Off a Flight

We planned to do our first night flight this week, and try to knock out about half of our required night landings here before the time changes, when you don’t have to stay up so late to get night flight in. John got called away for a work trip, though, so since his dual flights were canceled, that left the plane available for several slots on those days, and he said I could do another solo flight if I wanted. The new factor this time would be that he wouldn’t be at the airport at all. Knowing the power of habit, and that anyone can make a mistake, I’ve always treated my preflights as important and consequential, but even still, you always know in the back of your mind that the instructor has done this already too and made sure that everything is safe. This trip, the preflight wouldn’t just be a formality, and John wouldn’t be there at the field to radio for advice if I got into a tight spot. Of course that made me nervous, but I pulled out my tried and true method of meeting fear with preparedness. In the two days before the flight, I planned a route to fly over a local landmark, decided its (relatively low) risks were still too high for a low-time solo flight, and planned a different route that would just be a quick jaunt out over Athens then back to the pattern for several touch-and-go landings. The night before, I started checking the local aviation forecasts to see if the weather still looked good, and checked every few hours right up until I left for the airport. On the drive to the airport I went through and overcame the butterflies I’ve come to expect when I’m about to take a next step: that feeling that tells me I should call the whole thing off right now.

John has a couple of other students who are signed off for solo flights right now, and one of them had just landed when I arrived at the airport. The engine was still hot. I watched the line crew top off the plane with fuel, preflighted, manhandled the plane over to the startup spot, and climbed inside.

Aside from being my third solo, I was also excited about this flight because I planned, for the first time since my discovery flight, to shoot some video for YouTube. With no one else there to be waiting on me while I fussed with a camera, I could take the time to finally find a good spot to mount a GoPro in the Cheetah (not an easy feat with its highly curved windshield and sliding canopy) and figure out how to set up the wires to capture the headset audio. I got it all set up and started my checklist.

* Seat, check.
* Seatbelts, check.
* Control lock, check.
* Lights, check.
* Prime: hmmm, that didn’t feel quite normal. Let me try that again…no, still didn’t feel normal.

At this point my radar is up.

* Mixture, throttle, carb heat, master switch, check check check check.
* Fuel pump: now why didn’t the fuel pressure needle move?

I turned the fuel pump on and off several times. I could hear it running, but the needle was just stuck at 2.5 PSI. Never went to zero, never went up to 5 where it should have. I tried some mild percussive maintenance (thumping the gauge), but it didn’t budge.

At this point I was pretty sure I was going to call off the flight. With only 16 or 17 hours in this plane (or in any plane for that matter), I don’t know its idiosyncrasies well enough to be taking chances, and John wasn’t around to ask. That gauge never got stuck like that during any previous preflight, and the primer was never so easy to move before. Still, I decided to go ahead and start the engine, if nothing else to see if that made the needle move at all, because it might be useful info to pass along to John. The engine started right up, ran fine, but no movement on the fuel gauge. The other student had flown the plane just minutes before and reported no problems, but it looked like I’d pulled the short straw today. So I shut the engine off, packed the camera back up, chocked the wheels, and stifled my disappointment.

Ever since I decided to learn to fly, I’ve been reading anything aviation-related that I can get my hands on. A common theme in books, magazines and training materials is the mission-focused pilot, who succumbs to external pressure or get-there-itis and makes a fatal mistake to fly when the plane or the weather were trying to tell him not to do it. I’m a pretty mission-focused guy myself, so I’ve been steeling myself for the day I’d have to make the call not to fly because something didn’t feel right. Today, there was no real external pressure, just my own excitement about getting to fly on my own and take some video, so as disappointing as it was, it was pretty easy to say “Not today”. After I’d left the airport and it was too late to fly for the day, we got ahold of the school’s other flight instructor on the phone and he said the gauge probably just had residual pressure from the other student having flown so recently, and if we’d waited 20 minutes it would have worked. That’s probably true. But he also said I made the right call not to fly: “if in doubt, bail out.” I really wish I’d gotten to fly today, and I spent the rest of the day looking up at a clear blue sky, but I also don’t regret for a second canceling the flight. Because after all, I’ve never seen that gauge do that before.

Piloting vs Being Pilot in Command

There was a time, in the decades just before I was born, when learning to fly was all about learning to fly. Stick and rudder skills. The written exam was, so I hear, a True/False joke of a test. Good trainers always did something that today we’d call scenario-based training, but it was possible to earn your pilot certificate with steady hands on the stick and all the sense that God gave a walnut.

These days, there’s a lot of emphasis on Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and the various checklists and procedures. I’m a facts and statistics guy, a scientist who believes that reality is what it is regardless of how you feel about it, the kind of guy who bought a copy of The Killing Zone the same day I bought Stick and Rudder when I decided to learn to fly, so as silly as I feel when I run through IMSAFE, I know where these things are coming from, I know checklists work, and I’m on board. The FAA wants to ensure that a pilot who earns a certificate today learns as much about how to make good decisions in the air, and good decisions about when not to be in the air, as they do about how to actually fly the plane.

In my head, I know all of this. But sometimes it takes an object lesson in your own failings to drive a point home.

The week after my trip to Mobile, both me and the Cheetah were back in town and scheduled for my first post-solo lesson with my regular instructor. We spent the first 30 minutes geeking out about the new Garmin 650 in the plane and syncing ForeFlight on my iPad to it via Bluetooth. We’d barely discussed the operation of the old avionics, beyond the minimal necessary to get the ATIS, but I gathered John was pretty happy with the new stack and wanted to show it off. Pairing my iPad took longer than it might have because John wanted to do it and I didn’t muscle in: iPads and Bluetooth pairing are old hat to me the way flying is to him, so I figured he could use the practice setting the electronics up just like I could use the practice landings I was about to do.

We departed to the west and did a few 360s in the practice area, then a simulated engine out. Our previous engine out practices were, for me, all about the mechanics of getting into a field in one piece, and that’s how I set about this one. Immediately after pulling power, John reminded me that there was a grass field nearby that he had pointed out before, but said something like “We’re way too high for it”. So I picked a different field, but noticed there were power lines across it after a few moments. We were still plenty high, so I lined up for a third field and we got down to about the tree line. We were a little high but I didn’t start a forward slip because I didn’t intend to actually end up in the field. I just kept coasting on over the field until John said, “Alright, let’s get out of here.” On the way back up, he said he’d probably never pass up a good, known grass strip for a farmer’s field, and suddenly the last few minutes shifted into focus for me.

When John mentioned we were too high, he wasn’t telling me to find another field: with a grass field in reach, you can just circle to get where you need to be. Next time we do an engine out, I’m going to make for the field as if I intend to land there, and then, instead of waiting for his instructions, I’m going to say, “I’ve got the field made, at this point I would slip to a landing, so I’m going to get us out of here now.” I was focused on my flying skills: getting the field made, keeping the plane coordinated. That’s always necessary, but it’s also a given. I should also have been focusing on being pilot in command. Instead of waiting for instruction and prompting from John, I should have been making those decisions myself.

After the engine out, we headed back to the airport. For the first time, John didn’t give me a heading, he just told me to head back and left getting there to me. The complicating factor for flying into DCU is that it lies under the outer shelf of the Huntsville International (HSV) airspace, so you have to get below 2000 feet a few miles out. It’s not a problem unless you forget about it and come in a little high, because you should be descending to pattern altitude by that point anyway. I cleared the airspace, but cut it a little close for John’s comfort: he suggested I leave a few more hundred feet between myself and the ceiling from now on, in case my altimeter is incorrect. Noted, and another thing I feel like I should have known already.

Despite my own misgivings about my performance, I must have passed the day’s test, because after a half hour more of touch-and-go landings, back in John’s office, I learned the point of the day’s mix of activities. The next morning, bright and early, if the weather held and I was up for it, I’d be allowed a solo flight away from the airport. My second ever solo, and an hour of free flight to do with as I please. The day’s activities all made sense then: to understand the moving map on the 650 and how to work the new radios, to ensure I had a second moving map available on my iPad, to make sure I could likely get to the ground in one piece in an engine out, to make sure I remembered to avoid the HSV airspace, and to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to land. The afternoon had been a review course in preparation for the treat of an hour of self-directed flight, no instruction, just enjoying flying the airplane.

That night I planned out a route of flight for the next morning, which dawned beautifully: a slight wind straight down runway 36 and not a cloud in the sky. When I got to the office we checked for TFRs (none applicable) and John looked over my proposed route. He just reminded me to avoid Huntsville’s airspace and stay high enough to avoid cell towers (which will also keep me plenty high enough for the regulations about flight over populated areas). We did two touch-and-go landings together, and then he climbed out and I was on my own again, for only the second time.

Trying to recall the trip now, only a week later, it’s like trying to remember a vivid but fading dream. I’m left with impressions and a few memories of some specific things I saw along the way, but the stronger memories are of the decisions I made: how high to fly (4500 west, then 3500 east, because “east is odd”), which direction to fly, and when to return to the airport. All simple decisions, but all 100% made by me and no one else.

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Regarding navigation: sure, I had three moving maps with me (Garmin, iPad, iPhone) and was flying over the city I grew up in, but really my ultimate navigation device was the Tennessee river. The DCU airport is just north of a bend in the river, directly across from the city itself and between a railroad crossing, a marina and two large bridges. I knew as long as I kept the river in sight I could get back to the airport, and on a clear day like this you can see that river for miles and miles. With that comfort in mind, I put the moving maps aside (but on and ready) and tried this simple navigation scheme: fly west up the river for maybe 15 miles, in a direction that I rarely go and don’t know well, then fly back southeast toward my hometown, keeping the river in sight in the distance. When I found my hometown, I should turn due north, cross directly over Decatur, and find the airport there.

Intellectually, I knew to expect that things wouldn’t look the same from the air. But literally nothing looked familiar from the air. My navigation scheme didn’t work because I hadn’t yet learned what a town actually looks like from the air. I kept thinking I was just flying over little outlying neighborhoods, but here’s the thing about a small-to-medium sized town: it’s all neighborhoods! When I felt like I had probably gone too far I checked my moving map, and I was exactly over my home town and hadn’t even realized it.

I did a little better navigating by landmark on the final leg. In preparation for ducking under the HSV airspace and entering the pattern, I descended to 2500 feet over Decatur, which was close enough to make out individual features better. I picked out a large building next to a treeless scar on the earth and recognized them as the Home Depot and the Morgan County Fairgrounds. Then there was the River Bridge, the airport itself, maneuvering for entry into the pattern, and another landing that I was both proud to walk away from and glad that no one has on video tape.

I stayed tuned in to the DCU CTAF for the entire trip. While I was out, there was a minor flurry of helicopter and Citation activity, but it all cleared out just before I crossed the river on my way back to the airport. During the entire trip, the furthest I got from the airport was about 15 nautical miles. I only stayed in the air on my own for about 45 minutes, but those are 45 minutes that, dreamlike as they now seem, I’ll never forget. I may have technically been the pilot in command on that first solo day, when I did a few landings on my own in the traffic pattern, but this was the first day that I really felt like the Pilot in Command of an airplane.

An Hour over Mobile Bay

A few days after my first solo flight, the Cheetah flew out west for most of a month for a new avionics stack. It came back sporting a brand new touch screen Garmin 650, which is great, but in the meantime I was left with another three weeks with no scheduled flight lessons.

As it happens, midway through that span, my wife was asked to attend a conference in Mobile for two days. We convinced my parents to take the kids for a few days and went down together. My day job is such that I can work remotely when I need to, so I worked mornings while she attended the conference, and we spent the evenings remembering what it was like before we had kids. Afternoons were mine to fill on my own, so of course I called up a local flight school and asked about scheduling a flight lesson.

We take the kids down to the beach at Gulf Shores about once a year, which is only about an hour drive from Mobile, so at first I tried to get a lesson over at the airport in Gulf Shores. The webpage for the flight school there advertises two flight instructors who are semi-famous, both written up in industry magazine articles at some time or another, so I contacted one of those instructors to try to set something up. The response: “We’d love to fly with you but we can’t, we both just moved to Hawaii.” Sounds like a trip worth taking some day, but back to finding somewhere to fly that day: I ended up flying with Flight Training of Mobile at Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM).

My flight was scheduled for just after lunch. About 8 AM, the view from the 24th floor of our hotel was not encouraging: a fog had rolled in and I could only barely make out the building directly across the street. The fog hung around all morning, but it finally burned off by about lunchtime, so I headed over to the airport. IMG_2033 I went early and made sure I found the flight school’s building first, then, to get the total experience, I found a little airport diner near the field and had a fried chicken sandwich (there being no burgers on the menu). Then it was time to fill out the rental agreement and meet my instructor for the day. He turned out to be a wiry man in his fifties, very energetic and a nonstop talker. I told my wife that evening that I might have finally found someone who could fit more words into an hour than my mother-in-law can. His enthusiasm was contagious, though: his commercial aviation career was behind him, and this was someone who was teaching because he loved to teach, not to build hours to get somewhere else.

There were several firsts for me on this flight. One of them was flying at a towered field. My home airport DCU is uncontrolled, and my instructor John and I haven’t started cross-countries yet, so BFM is only the second airport I’ve ever flown out of. In Mobile the instructor handled the radio, and the field wasn’t very busy that afternoon so there weren’t very many interactions with the tower. Knowing that it was my first time with a tower, the instructor kept pointing out how “easy” towered comms are compared to flying at an uncontrolled field, b/c you don’t have to call all your turns. I’ll call that a solid “maybe”: to me it didn’t seem easier or harder, just different. One thing I did notice though was how hard the tower controller was to understand. He wasn’t drunk or having a stroke, he just had a particular kind of mumbling Southern accent that you hear sometimes down here. If you’re a fellow Alabamian you know the one I’m talking about. I’m sure he could have spoken more clearly if it had been pointed out, but I’m sure I’ll be in for all kinds of accents from tower controllers once I get that private certificate and start widening my reach.

A second first: our plane for the flight was a Cessna 172. I’ve flown in a 172 twice before, but only as a passenger, before I started learning to fly. The preflight was extremely short. We did not inspect the exterior of the plane at all. The instructor had just flown it with his previous student moments before so I didn’t perceive a safety issue there, but I wonder if he skipped that part because he knew I was only there for one lesson, or if he typically skips it after the first flight of the day. He also ran through the startup and run up checklists himself, including reaching over and turning the ignition switch. Since he didn’t know me from Adam before that moment, I assume he was doing with me what he probably does on discovery flights for brand new students, but it does make me appreciate my usual flight instructor’s approach: with John, from the very first discovery flight I was holding the checklist, checking the gauges and flipping all the switches myself.

Most of the flight was spent out over the bay. The city is located on the far north end of Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico about 30 miles south of the city. Just below the bay is Dauphin Island, famous for its research station. By car, it takes about 45-to-60 minutes to drive from Mobile to either coast of the bay. By 172, it took about ten minutes to make the trip. We started out flying directly down the bay to the island, the instructor peppering me with trivia about the Mobile Bay area while I got accustomed to the climb, RPM speeds and trim on the 172. We flew out to the island, circled it once, and then headed back the way we came. On the way back, we did a power off stall, power on stall, and a couple of steep turns. This instructor taught me a different approach to steep turns than John did, which I like better: get the turn in, then add a bit of trim to help keep the necessary back pressure. That made it easier to hold altitude during the turn, and I did a pretty decent job this time. Next time me and John are working on those maneuvers together, I’m going to ask him what he thinks about pros and cons of doing it that way.

Another first for me was right traffic. The active pattern was right traffic to 14. All my left-seat flying before that day was in a low-wing Cheetah, where keeping the runway in sight in the pattern is pretty easy. In a high-wing, I’ve heard that there are techniques for keeping sight of the runway during turns, but we didn’t cover anything like that. I basically gave up on keeping the runway in sight, and instead made my turns relative to I-10, which conveniently runs perpendicular to runway 14 at that airport. On the crosswind side there wasn’t any such convenient landmark, and I spent my time trying to catch a glimpse of the runway rather than picking a compass heading to roll out on, so I ended up turning a couple of circular-ish crosswinds, and the instructor grabbed the yoke and made adjustments a fair bit more than I’m used to. Let’s just say I’m not particularly proud of my pattern work on that flight. The landings were ok; once I was on final and on speed, whatever differences there are between landing the Cheetah and the Cessna are subtle enough that I don’t have the skill or perception to notice them yet: my three landings were neither great nor horrible, but we walked away from them all and didn’t damage the plane, so I’ll call that a success.

I want to thank Flight Training of Mobile for putting up with a low-time student asking for a single flight lesson. I know that’s a little unusual, but I really enjoyed getting a different perspective and getting to spend an hour in the air over beautiful Mobile Bay.

First Flight as (Actual) Pilot in Command – Solo!

I’ve only added about 5 flight hours to my logbook in the weeks since my last post, but they’ve been quite eventful.

Just after my last post, when we had spent several lessons in a row just practicing takeoffs, a combination of bad weather, the next 100-hour maintenance and other factors conspired to cancel the next several lessons. When I finally flew again three weeks later, we had space for just two lessons before the plane was going to be out for another three weeks to get a new radio stack. We spent a Thursday afternoon practicing landings again and I felt like I was starting to get a better hang of it, and during the debrief afterward John surprised me: he told me that the next day, after some additional landing practice, if the weather cooperated, and if he felt good about it, and if I felt good about it, that I might fly solo.

I was understandably a little jittery at work on Friday. My wife happened to need to be near the airport end of town that evening anyway, so I told her to bring the kids by the airport around sunset and we’d all go out to eat from there…and by the way, maybe, possibly, I might fly a plane solo just before that. :-)

So Friday afternoon at 4:00 we jumped in the plane and started some dual landing practice, just like normal. [Sidebar: unlike with a car, for a (safe) pilot, “jumped in” means “spent 30 minutes discussing, preflighting, and running-up”]. After the 5th landing, John asked me to taxi over near his hangar, and asked how I felt about things.

I had gone into the afternoon’s lesson knowing that I’d be tempted to say I was ready even if I wasn’t, since me and John both knew that not soloing that day would mean another 3 week delay before we could try again, which would also mean, because of the canceled lessons, only 3 flight hours across six seeks. Such a long delay would probably mean several more lessons to regain decayed skills before I could try to solo again. If you read up on pilot decision making, that’s a classic “external factors” accident in the making, so I told myself all day long that if I wasn’t certain I was ready, I’d be the one to call it off and try again another time. But when the time came, it wasn’t a hard call, because here’s the thing about practice: it really does work, to build both skill and confidence. It’s like a magic spell. During those two days before I soloed we did 15 trips around the pattern together. In that time, one or two of my landings had been good and none had been horrible, and after the first time or two around the pattern, once I’d shaken off the cobwebs, I felt ahead of the airplane the whole time. I could feel it, and John noticed and commented on it too. Unlike previous practice sessions, there were no trips around the pattern where I reached the end of the downwind leg and realized I hadn’t yet done my CGUMPS checks (a checklist of switches you’re supposed to flip and things you’re supposed to do to ensure you’re ready for landing). The wind was mostly right down the runway but I was confident I could handle the slight crosswind that kept popping up intermittently. I was nervous, but I was confident that I was ready to go.

So John endorsed my logbook, checked that I had my medical and student-pilot certificate in the plane with me, opened the canopy and climbed out. As he walked away, I closed and latched the canopy, and then it was just me and a running engine.

There’s not much else to say after that. I taxied and did my radio calls by the book. Takeoff was uneventful. And it’s just possible that there’s a record on liveatc.net of me broadcasting “Yeehaw!!!” over the radio just after calling my first turn to crosswind by myself. But I don’t know how it got there and I’ll deny it if you ask.

It turns out I had enough time for three trips around the pattern that day. Official sunset was at 5:30, and I pulled off the runway at 5:29. My wife had arrived with the kids and took some pictures. Per tradition, John cut my shirt tail off and I decorated it for him to hang on his wall.

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Pattern Work at approx. 10 hours

I mentioned before that my flight instructor seems to be of the “just keep doing it” school of thought: he will happily answer any question I ask and points out what he thinks I need to work on, but otherwise mostly lets the experience of performing the actions be the teacher. We didn’t talk about landings at all in the first several lessons, we just did one each lesson as a matter of course. After an hour working on stalls or emergency landings, he would give me a heading that would take us back to the airport on a 45 to the downwind, and then start talking me through the landing. I was doing landings all the way to the ground (with help) from my second lesson, but for those first several lessons I was just following instructions: I didn’t really have the procedure down, didn’t understand why we were reducing power or putting in flaps when we did. I’ve read about landings plenty in my ground school materials, so nothing was totally alien to me, but other than the general mantra to fly a stabilized approach the same way every time, a lot of the details of a landing come down to the particular aircraft you’re flying and personal preference (for instance, exactly when to put in flaps and how much). For the first several lessons, from the moment we entered the traffic pattern at the end of the lesson I was well and fully behind the airplane, just following instructions as they were given.

We’ve now had four lessons in a row where we did nothing but pattern work: take off, fly in a circle, and land again, ten times a lesson. The repetition is working, at least as far as confidence goes. I feel like I’m ahead of the airplane all the way through the pattern, and only a few times have I forgotten to put the flaps in when I should or complete my CGUMPS checks on downwind before the last second. I am now confident that I can make a survivable power-on landing without help, even with a bit of crosswind. I would like for the plane that I’m flying to be reusable after the landing, though, and there’s where I still have a lot of work to do. I keep underestimating how much to pull back during the flare, and dropping the airplane in too hard. My instructor’s poor plane is going in for a 100 hour this week, and I keep imagining a mechanic shaking his head and clucking his tongue looking at the shape of the landing gear after I’ve been doing all these crosswind landings in it. We haven’t lucked into a calm day for practice yet, and it seems every one of those 40 landings had wind from a different direction, from almost direct crosswind to almost direct headwind down the runway…and probably a couple of tailwind landings too. (On the first day the wind was so variable that we had to swap to the opposite runway halfway through the lesson, and we think it swapped again just before the last touchdown, giving us a tailwind instead of a headwind at the last moment for the last touchdown.)

All this pattern work is a good confidence booster, and frankly I enjoy it more than practicing stalls: I have a fundamental antipathy to intentionally putting an airplane anywhere close to a spin condition on purpose. Still, it’ll be nice to have a nice calm day for pattern work someday soon so I can separate out how much of my trouble landing is due to learning to deal with variable conditions, vs how much is just plain learning how to land.

Speaking of confidence, on the last lesson, I had my son with me so I could quickly get him to an appointment after my lesson, and he got to sit in the back seat while my instructor and I practiced taking off and landing for an hour. Six flight hours ago, I’d have never done that: I was just too nervous.

In all those landings, I’ve had two that I felt really pretty good about, and that I think my instructor didn’t help with. If he did he won’t fess up to it :-) Lest I get too full of myself, though, here’s a list of some other brilliant things I did these past few hours. Every one of these is a lesson learned.

  • Mixed up idle cutoff and full rich during the engine-start checklist, and tried to start the engine with the mixture at idle. This was on about my sixth or seventh time to start the engine, not my first.
  • Gunned the engine (put in power, realized what I’d done, and pulled it out quick), parked facing a fence five feet opposite my instructor’s nice new truck. Luckily I was holding the brakes tight. I had meant to pull the mixture to idle cutoff.
  • Told Unicom (instead of Traffic) about my intention to taxi. They don’t care.
  • Asked Uniform (instead of Unicom) for a radio check. No one answered…probably all the uniforms were in for dry cleaning.

Fear and (Self-)Loathing at 3500 Feet

I was pretty pumped after my first flight lesson. I took the time to set the camera up on the way home to talk about the experience while it was fresh on my mind, and I don’t remember having any negative thoughts at the time. It was nearly a week until the next lesson, though, and by the morning of the next lesson I had almost talked myself into calling it off, to give myself some more time to “process” the experience. This is, of course, the exact opposite of my original plan, and I knew it’d be a bad move on several levels. I couldn’t quite understand why I had grown so apprehensive. It seemed irrational: I had been so excited to get started, and nothing bad at all had happened on my first two flights. Though the stall training had been dramatic, it hadn’t been particularly frightening. I finally decided that it was performance anxiety. The second lesson is the first time that you’re repeating something that you’ve already done once, so it’s the first chance to start failing expectations: my own, my instructor’s, everybody’s.

That’s all irrational and, I’m sure, natural. A flight instructor isn’t going to expect you to perfectly perform every operation you’ve ever done every time when you’re first getting started. Nor will anyone else, including your wife or your mom. Your kids might, but then you can just tell them to go to their room. Repeated practice is why it takes so many hours of instruction to learn to fly. That’s easy to write here in my office, several days later, but it’s hard to remember when the pit of your stomach starts talking to you. It’s a consequence, I’m sure, of being the kind of person who cares what others think. That quality gets a bad rap in popular culture (remember, “you do you”), and there are certainly situations where I’d rather that I didn’t give a flip what anyone else thinks, but after 3 decades of experience being myself, I’m pretty sure that it would take some kind of super-villain-origin-story tragedy to change that aspect of myself. I don’t really want to be the asshat version of myself, regardless of how many things that might make easier.

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As wise men have said, “Knowing is half the battle.” I think if you can’t change yourself, you should strive to know yourself well enough to hack yourself. That’s what my public commitment to start flight training was about: use my fear of letting others down by committing to a personal goal as a public goal. Now, I’m using my irrational fear of not doing everything perfectly from the second attempt as motivation to study and prepare for flight lessons. If I’m at least as well prepared as I possibly could be, I can give myself a pass for not being perfect. Since flight lessons are expensive, all that preparation might save me some money in the long run too. And it might save my life some day.

The first “official” lesson ended with an experience that went by too quickly for me to process at the time: a touch-and-go landing, then a full-stop landing. A touch-and-go means that you take back off again as soon as you land, without stopping. You just “touch” the runway, then “go” right back up again. We had of course landed the plane on that first discovery flight, and I had been the one to make the turns then, but John took care of altitude and coordination as well as the actual touchdown, and he didn’t talk much about what we were doing. Now that I was an official student, he was talking through the landing as we did it, and I had the stick all the way to the ground. Though I knew what we were doing in theory, it still moved pretty fast, and I didn’t know we were doing a touch-and-go until he started telling me to take the flaps back out and open the throttle. (He probably told me and I was too hyper-focused on not crashing the plane to process the information). I feel pretty good about it now, but at the time that whole last 5 minutes was hectic and had me nervous about my next lesson, because I knew that no matter what else happened, at some point we would have to land.

Even more than the landing, though, the part that I was most nervous about while driving to the field for that next lesson was the runup and taxi. It’s hard to get the runup wrong: the instructor is right there to catch any problems, it all happens at whatever speed you’re comfortable with (if you don’t have an impatient instructor), and there’s a checklist, so it’s literally like taking an open book test where the book consists of nothing but the answers. And taxiing, while it can be done incredibly badly, still happens on the ground at (relatively) slow speeds. I knew all of this, and I had no idea why it was making me so nervous, but there it was. All this epiphany stuff about being more nervous the second time came later. All I knew on the day was this: “I know, in my head, that the runup is the easy part. If I’m nervous about that part, then this has to all just be butterflies. I’d better get my behind to the airport.”

I did mention to John that I had been a little intimidated by landing, and we’ve worked on it a little more since then, mostly since every takeoff must be paired with a landing of some kind or another. In another lesson or two, we’re planning on spending most of a lesson just flying the pattern, practicing landings. Even with just the few additional landings I’ve done, though, I’ve started to build some confidence. I don’t think I’m particularly good at landing yet, but that panic hasn’t returned. I wouldn’t be comfortable landing a plane without help tomorrow, but I can imagine what that confidence might feel like now. And speaking of confidence, just a few more lessons in, that fear of the engine runup is almost completely gone. I’m actually looking forward to that part of the next lesson, and I’ve started to internalize the checklist enough to start thinking about the most efficient flow to accomplish it.

So after all of that drama in my head before I even arrived at the airport, the lesson itself went smoothly. I left (most of) the apprehension I’d arrived with up at 3500 feet, and departed the airport at peace with the knowledge that I’d be back again the next day for another lesson. I did have one more experience that got a little more “real” than I was expecting, though. We practiced an emergency descent into an simulated engine-out landing in a field. The emergency descent was interesting: you’re in a real airplane, banked at 45 degrees, rushing toward the ground as if you didn’t have a perfectly good airplane to hold you up. I think this is another of those things that’ll be fun by about the fifth time I do it. Once we got to 2000 feet, we picked out a field where we would “land” if the engine really were out. I guess in my head I had only taken a simulated emergency landing that far, so I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for the next part: we S-turned a few times to get lined up for that field and came right down to the tops of the trees before putting power in and getting back up to altitude. If the engine really had been out, we’d have been in that field in another 10 seconds. I wasn’t expecting us to go so low, so while I wasn’t at all frightened, I stayed behind the airplane the entire time, and I realized later that that had really been what bothered me about that first touch-and-go landing as well. I was behind the airplane, and I knew it. I’m not sure I’d have put the plane down safely without the instructor’s guidance when we practiced the emergency landing a second time the next lesson, but I felt a lot more confident because at least I knew what to expect.

I do need to work on committing to turns though. To me, 20 deg of bank feels just about right. A “normal” 30 deg turn just feels a little too steep, and across my first few lessons the instructor has continually had to tell me to keep bank in and get it on over to 30. The same when we practiced steep turns: it’s going to take some practice for me to get used to a 45 degree turn. I did sense some progress though: the first time we practiced 45 degree turns, I lost a few hundred feet because I didn’t have a good feel for just how much the required back pressure starts to scale up as you put in more bank. By my latest practice session, I was keeping the plane fairly level in a 45 degree, and holding the bank in fairly well too.

I started Flight Lessons!

A while back I played a trick on myself. I made a public commitment to learn to fly, on YouTube and Facebook, so I wouldn’t let all my other obligations crowd out that goal. So once my busy Autumn season started to wind down, I contacted the flight instructor who had taken me on my discovery flight back in September and started scheduling regular lessons. I was pretty proud of myself for getting lessons scheduled without much delay once the busy season started to wind down, but as it turned out, the first five scheduled lessons were canceled.

The first two were canceled because the plane took longer than expected in its 100 hour inspection. The third was canceled because the flight instructor’s other piloting job came calling: he flies private jets, and a family he flies for decided to go out of town for Thanksgiving. The next was canceled because of tornadoes…so I guess that’s OK. The fifth was canceled because the flight instructor had a death in the family.

I actually chose that flight school, though it’s not the closest airport to my home and work, because it is an actual flight school, not just a guy with a CFI doing training in his spare time. I thought it would probably be easier to schedule training time against my own busy calendar. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a mistake, but almost a month after the lessons were due to start, I drove over to the field at midday and took my first real flight lesson.

During my discovery flight a few months ago we did many of the things that John, my flight instructor, would have done for a first flight lesson, so we actually started on lesson two for my first official lesson. This meant that we jumped right into power-on and power-off stalls. Power-off stalls are basically what I would have expected from the training videos: you get the nose way higher than you’d ever take it for normal operations, wait for the plane to buffet and the nose to drop, then recover. Power-on stalls were a different story, though: even with only 65% power, it felt like the plane was standing on its tail by the time we got it to stall. Recovery from both is simple: let the nose drop out of that ridiculous attitude, increase the power, and start flying again. I think I probably pushed the stick forward rather than just letting it neutralize from the power-on stall, though, because we went from straight up to straight down before leveling back out again. My flight instructor doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what’s about to happen before we do it; he seems to be of the sort to let the experience speak for itself. That’s fine, but I will say that if I had experienced a power-on stall without knowing what to expect beforehand, I think I’d have started mentally revising my will. Since I knew more or less what to expect, I never felt in any danger, and by the second time around it was actually kind of fun.

Both kinds of stall practice are meant to teach you what the plane starts to feel like before it stalls. They’re done with plenty of altitude, and you take the plane all the way to the stall because there is plenty of time to recover. Unless you’re doing aerobatics, you should never have the plane in the attitudes that these stalls are practiced at. The times that stalls like these tend to happen is in the traffic pattern near an airport: a pilot takes off with a plane that’s loaded way too aft-heavy, or tries to salvage a landing that’s gone bad instead of going around and trying again, all too low to the ground when recovery after the stall might be a (literal) dead letter. Stall practice lets you feel just how squirrelly the plane starts to get before it stalls, so that if you start to feel those same sensations down low to the ground where it matters you can take action before the stall even develops. It also instilled in me a healthy respect for how fast things move once a stall develops. I lost about 500 feet in the recovery from my first power-on stall. I’m sure you can improve on that with practice, but I was also expecting the stall. Imagine if I hadn’t been, and imagine if it’d happened just before landing, at 400 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). That math doesn’t work out in my favor, and it all happens in seconds. The moral of the story: the airplane will warn you before it stalls, so listen, and don’t let the stall develop.

I haven’t been taking any video these first few lessons. I didn’t, and don’t, want any distractions from the basic stick and rudder training here at first. I did take a business trip to NYC a few days before my first lesson, though, and took a few pictures from the air on the final leg home. Though there were four separate legs to my round trip, the first three were flown from middle-row seats and, on the way up, 700 foot ceilings across the entire Southeast, so there was nothing to see out the window from just after takeoff until just before touchdown. This was my first airline flight since I started studying to be a pilot, so from a technical standpoint the trip through the soup was interesting to me in a way it wasn’t before. But still, middle seat. The final leg from Atlanta to Huntsville started from blue skies and the plane was only half-full, though, so I got a few shots out the window. In the lower left center of the first picture here is a clearing with a large home with a private paved airstrip in the backyard, west of Atlanta. I had to take a picture of that. This was all from my iPhone, so it’s much harder to see the strip in the picture than it was in real life, for the same reason that your pictures of the moon are never very impressive.

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Phantom 4 – Max Motor Speed Reached

You’d never know it from the high of 85deg today, but the leaves have finally started to change for the season here in North Alabama, so I took my Phantom 4 up this afternoon to get a few shots of the Fall colors.

South Hartselle Fall Afternoon

South Hartselle Fall Afternoon

I’ve been getting more comfortable flying the Phantom, so after I got a few shots I decided to go a little higher than I’ve ever gone before. The legal limit is 400ft AGL, but I’ve never been much higher than 200. Starting from about 120ft, I climbed gently for a few seconds, then gave it max throttle to see what she could do. The drone shot straight up into the air, crossing 200ft in seconds. After a few seconds, my flight display showed a warning “Max Motor Speed Reached”, so I let off the throttle and the warning went away quickly…but immediately my heart started to sink, as the video feed from the drone showed that it was falling from the sky.

I could still see it above me (this was a more or less straight up and down flight), and I could hear the motors changing speeds up and down rapidly. I experimentally gave it some throttle and could hear the motors speed up and see the fall slow down on the video feed, so I could tell I still had some control. Over the next several seconds, I continued to feather the throttle, giving it just enough to keep the sink rate slow but not daring to hold constant throttle against the fall. Somewhere above 100ft, it stopped losing altitude and hovered in place. I landed gently and found no damage upon inspection; neither the motors nor the battery were even particularly hot.

A propellor is just a wing that gets its lift from moving fast in a circle instead of fast in a straight line. Just like any other wing, a propellor can stall. When a wing stalls, there isn’t enough lift being developed to keep it in the air anymore. I am not an aeronautical engineer, so my analysis could be wrong here, but I assume a quadcopter can stall because I do know that helicopter blades can stall: see https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2014/may/08/rotorocraft-rookie-helicopter-stalls and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retreating_blade_stall.

Just as an intellectual exercise, I decided to perform a little investigation. According to Wikipedia, a helicopter blade stall can be caused by any of the following factors:

  • High gross weight
  • High airspeed
  • Low rotor RPM
  • High density altitude
  • Steep or abrupt turns
  • Turbulent ambient air

We can rule out some causes easily. High gross weight: I haven’t added anything to the craft, it is as it came from the factory. Low rotor RPM: according to the warning message, I was in the opposite case. Steep or abrupt turns: I was climbing straight up.

Density altitude had actually been my first thought when I realized the propeller may have stalled. Today was a pretty hot day after all, I figured. It’s not actually the most likely cause, but let’s work it out anyway. Because the air gets thinner as you climb, a wing has to go faster to develop the same lift at higher altitudes than at lower ones. Temperature and pressure affect this too (as in high and low pressure systems, from the weather report), since air expands (gets less dense) as it gets hotter, and a low pressure system literally means less dense air. Density altitude is a formula that tells you how high the aircraft “feels” that it is, taking into account temperature and pressure.

I live pretty close to an airport and have an app that gives weather and altimeter for other nearby airports as well, so I gathered or interpolated the following information, based on the available information for the closest airports:

Altitude: 692ft MSL
Altimeter: 30.14 inHg
Temp: 81deg F
Dewpoint: 50deg F

MSL means “mean sea level”, so the measurement above means that ground level where I am is 692ft above sea level. AGL means “above ground level”, meaning the actual distance above the ground. The numbers above are all approximate, b/c 1. I’m not the NTSB, and 2. the stakes are pretty low here. For instance, I used the reported altitude of the nearby airport even though I was actually launching from higher ground, maybe 20 feet higher.

According to the flight log kept by the DJI app, the highest altitude I reached was 282ft AGL, so that puts me at 692ft + 282ft = 974ft MSL. Plug all those numbers into a density altitude formula and I get 2515ft, so at the point where the drone started falling, it’s as if I was flying at 2515 feet above sea level, though I was actually only 280 feet above the ground.

(I want to point out here, for those who may have missed it, that density altitude is a measure of performance of an aircraft, not an actual height above the ground. My max height above the ground on this flight was 280 feet. Flying a remote aircraft at 2515 feet anywhere, much less near an airport, would have been both dangerous and illegal in my circumstances.)

I couldn’t find any official numbers on this, but I found one reference online that the service ceiling of a Phantom 4 is 19,685 ft. More importantly, I found many people in online forums reporting that they use their Phantom 4 in places like Colorado, at density altitudes around 8000 to 12000 feet. So it should be safe to say that I didn’t exceed the capabilities of the drone flying at a density altitude of 2515.

Wind this afternoon was calm. I was going straight up and down so I should have been in the same air column the whole time. That doesn’t necessarily rule out turbulence, but I think it makes it less probable.

That leaves high airspeed, and that is my best guess: I accelerated so quickly that I reached a vertical climb speed that stalled the propellors. The motors tried to compensate by running all the way up to full speed. Stalled, the craft lost altitude until the combination of the craft’s flight controller and my own feathered inputs got it back under control. That’s my theory at least.

Edit: After a good night’s sleep, one other possible cause occurred to me: altimeter error. Every time you take off, the Phantom 4 counts your current position as altitude zero and displays your altitude then as an offset from that. One thing I failed to mention above is that the log for this flight showed an altimeter reading of -26ft at landing, though it started at zero and I launched and landed from the same spot. I originally chalked that up to the device failing to track altitude change during the time that it was falling, but I didn’t look into a mechanism for how that could happen. I researched it this morning and it turns out that the Phantom 4 uses a barometric pressure altimeter. I did do something just before the flight that may have affected the accuracy of an altimeter: I took the Phantom from inside (about 72deg F) to outside (about 81deg F). Air density decreases as temperature increases, so if the device was just hovering in mid-air, not actually moving, but warmed up to ambient outside air temperature, it may have “thought” it was gaining altitude and tried to compensate.

I’m not sure if that really tells me anything, though. Presumably the unit had done some warming to ambient temperature before it self-calibrated upon being turned on, so I could cherry-pick any intermediate temperature that worked and say that accounts for a 26ft drop. Further, though I was paying more attention to keeping the drone out of free fall than I was the altimeter, I am fairly certain that the actual drop was greater than 26 ft. Regardless, reading the DJI forums, it sounds like the general consensus is that the barometer in a Phantom 4 does experience temperature-driven inaccuracy in its height readout, but the effect is small, and it’s common for the height to drift by several feet during a flight. I still have a feeling that the -26ft landing height is telling me something about what happened to the drone at the apogee of its flight, but I don’t know what.

First Flight!

I took a “Discovery” flight with a local flight school today. It was my first time in the left seat of a plane, and it was a beautiful day for it.

I’ve been studying the ground school materials for several months now, and making big plans for going and doing an accelerated flight training program in the future, but I decided I should go ahead and get at least some time in a plane before I take the major step of taking a break from life and heading out of town for weeks of flight training. I’ve been in small planes before, just not as pilot, so I was familiar with the sensations, but no matter how well you prepare you never know how you’ll really react to a situation until you’re in it. Between the ground school videos and the books and the simulator, nothing the flight instructor John told me today was new to me, but of course it was also all entirely new because today I was there.

Despite all the preparation, there came a moment, sitting at the hold line just before we turned onto the runway to take off, when the healthy apprehension tried to turn to panic, and a part of my brain that had been screaming “Abort! Abort! Abort!” all morning long almost won. The instructor was great, though, and once we’d been off the ground for about five minutes all of that melted away. Once the panic was gone, the flight was really enjoyable. We stayed out for about 30 or 40 minutes I think. The time flew by.

Partially because of my schedule and partially due to other factors, I really can’t say for sure when I’ll be able to take that “flying vacation” for accelerated training, but I can say that I don’t want to wait until then to take my next flight. Between work and kids, literally every day of the week is spoken for during the Fall, but I’m going to try to find some time to schedule lessons anyway. One of the major reasons that I have been seriously considering doing accelerated flight training is so that I wouldn’t have the experience of going weeks between flights, so that I don’t spend part of each lesson just relearning what I’ve forgotten since last time. That’s still a real consideration…but I just want to get in the air again :-)

The plane we flew in is a Grumman Cheetah, which is a make I had never heard of before today. The instructor was John Besherse of Learjet John Aviation, based at Pryor Field north of Decatur, AL. Everybody there was a delight, and seemed genuinely interested in my project of tracking my flight training via YouTube as well. I don’t think I could have found a better group of people to spend the morning of my first flight with.

Hartselle Depot Days at Dawn 2016 – Drone Video

I helped my wife set up a crafts booth to benefit my daughter’s dance class at the yearly Depot Days festival in Hartselle, AL this morning. Just after sunrise I snuck up the hill for a minute to get this video of the vendors starting to set up for the festival day to come.

We also got over to the annual fly-in at Moontown in the afternoon. I have a little video from there too, which will be part of a Moontown-specific video I’m going to do later, but today was mostly a bust there: cloudy and drizzling with a ceiling touching the tops of the surrounding mountains all day, and nobody flew in or out while we were there. Pretty though.

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Getting Started with Flight Training – My Plan

I’ve just posted the first video in a series I’m doing on my journey toward a private pilot certificate (aka a pilot license).

A short trip in an old Cessna last year and the purchase of a drone several months ago reawakened an old desire to learn to fly. At first, I just started flying in X-Plane, a flight simulator, which is what I had done before when the bug hit, but this time a confluence of events led me to start seriously considering the real thing.

So back in the spring I started taking a video ground school and studying everything I could get my hands on, and spent some time looking at various options for how to start flight training.

This video is the first in a series where I’ll document the approach I’ve decided on for getting from zero flight hours to a private pilot certificate. This video series is an experiment. My idea is to document what I learn along the way, not so much about how to fly (the industry and the Internet have that well covered already), but about my journey from here to there, told as it happens rather than in hindsight.

This is an exciting project: I’m putting this major life goal out there for the world to see before I have the accomplishment well in hand, and that’s something I’ve never been very comfortable with. I prefer not to talk about things I’m working on, or working toward, or “gonna do someday”, because we all know the guy who’s always going to do something. So publishing this series is my way of affirming that all the other thousand things that can and do prevent someone from earning a pilot certificate will not in fact prevent me from earning a pilot certificate.

First Flight as Remote Pilot in Command

I flew my first official drone flight under my new Remote Pilot certificate today, to get some footage for a video.

Hartselle from the Air 2016

I only got my drone, Geary, a few months before the text of FAA Part 107 was released. The rule for hobby flight under Part 107 and for the rules that preceded it is that you must notify any airport within a 5 mile radius of your flight. However, all my flights prior to getting my certificate were no higher than treetop level, so I interpreted that rule to have something like this appended: “unless you’re flying so low that nobody wants to hear from you about your piddly drone flight and the only possible traffic conflict with a manned aircraft is from one that is already in the process of crashing into you.”

Today, I planned on going up to about 100 or 150 feet above ground level (AGL) to get some nice shots of the town, which is above the treetops around here. As a remote pilot certificate holder, that 5-mile notification rule is relaxed for me: I don’t have to notify anybody, so long as I’m not in controlled airspace (meaning, not near a larger airport) and am staying out of airport traffic patterns. I planned to fly at my parent’s house, which is near the middle of town and about 2mi NNW of the local small airport. Though I never saw a plane fly as low as 100ft over that house the entire time I was growing up there, I do occasionally see them pass over at maybe 1000 feet, possibly on their way to join the left downwind for runway 36. Two miles out is too far to be only 150 feet off the ground on landing, and I’d only be up for about 5 minutes, but it only takes moments to cause a problem in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it seemed the neighborly (and safe) thing to do to stop by the FBO at the airport and let them know I’d be flying a drone a few miles north later in the day. There is a phone number for them in the chart supplement, but I live nearby, so I just drove over.

This is a tiny FBO, the kind of place that only has one person on duty at a time, so the lady I talked to at the front desk was also the management on duty and manning the Unicom, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her out there mowing the lawn before too. She was very nice and had no objection to my flight, but she also had a deer-in-the-headlights look that told me receiving a notification of an upcoming drone flight was a new experience for her. Though I know there have been other drones operating within 5 miles of that airport (I’ve seen the footage), it is entirely possible that I’m the first person to try to notify them.

One example of how new these rules are, and how airport operators definitely should not be relied upon to know them yet, is that when I told her that I had a handheld radio I could use to monitor for incoming traffic (for those manned aircraft that bother to call their approaches), she suggested that I respond to anyone who calls to let them know there’s a drone up. This is definitely not the FAA policy — they are pretty clear that you’re to monitor, not transmit, if you’re monitoring CTAF on the ground during remote flight operations. She did also offer to warn anybody on approach to watch out for the drone herself, and per my understanding that would be the correct procedure since the FBO is licensed to transmit, while I am not. My plan for the foreseeable future is not to communicate with manned aircraft, but rather to get the heck on the ground if I see a plane coming my way, or hear a transmission that implies one will be soon.

By the way, the flight went off without a hitch and I got some nice panoramic shots of town for my video.