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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.

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