Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spring has arrived

Well, spring is definitely settling in around here.

All the trees have sprouted fast-growing leaves, flowers are up all over the place( have been for awhile actually ) and on any given day you can hear lawn mowers starting out on their first run of the year.

A month or so ago, I started looking seriously into setting out on a Flight Instructing course.

Of course, all the schools I spoke with said pretty much the same thing. " We'd love to take your money, but even in the best of times, we can't promise you a job, and trust us, these are NOT the best of times. ". I also came to the conclusion that I was starting this way too late in the year. The " busy " season for flight instructing out here is in the summer, of course, and I would need a minimum of two to three months to work my way through a Flight Instructor - Aeroplane course and get my flying (back) up to a reasonable standard. By the time I finished the course, most of the schools around here would probably be looking at the middle-to-end of their busy season and getting ready to whittle the staffing down for the winter months.

I did however talk with the manager of the local ultralight field a few times over the last couple of years, and decided to call him up and see what they had in the works. Turns out, they are optimistically looking forward to a busy summer and were looking at hiring a few people, particularly those who might be able to commit on a part time / flexible basis.

More than right up my alley, I've signed up and am about half way through my Flight Instructor - Ultralight rating course. Now, I know you think lawn chairs strapped to lawn mower engines and suspended beneath a hang glider, when I say Ultralight, but I am pleased to report, it is just not so.

There was definitely a period where ultralights evolved somewhat clumsily from the backyard lawnchair contraptions into what they are today, but trust me, those days are gone.

You can still go and get yourself an open-cockpit trike or an old school powered hang glider, but theres a lot more options to choose from nowadays.

One of the biggest changes, I am told, came about in the late nineties, when Transport Canada ( PBUH ), decided to diverge from the US standards of what an " Ultralight " is, and increased the gross weight limits, fuel capacities and a host of other things.

Suddenly, a whole segment of small-aircraft manufactureres could put a product to market without the exhaustive and intensely expensive certification process of a conventional aeroplane. In a lot of cases, smaller "certified" aircraft were made bigger/heavier only because the manufacturer had to only use bits and bobs from other manufacturers that had already been certified, and were not ideal for the purpose, but were far less expensive than trying to certify your own product, even if it made more sense from an engineering standpoint.

Say a small-plane manufacturer wants to use the head light assembly off a 2008 Honda Civic, as a landing light. The civic's headlight bits weigh 2 lbs and put out sufficient light intensity for use as a landing light. Tests in their use in cars have shown they are safe, efficient and durable in a transportation environment. But.... since using them in a conventional aeroplane requires them to be certified anew for aviation use, the cost is too prohibitive for the small company, who is trying to tap into a lower-cost segment of the general aviation market with their small plane. So, they use the old standard, originally certified in 1966, headlight assembly from ( insert obscure small airplane manufacturer long-dissolved and only operated by lawyers and investment bankers making piles of money off the rights to the certification and propietary use sales on long-obsolete, but CERTIFIED, equipment ).

ACME YE OLDE HEADLIGHT RIGHTS CO. sells a spiffy 14 pound assembly, made of fine handcrafted balsa wood and bakolite, encasing a 40 candlepower D-Cell battery-operated headlight.

Your cost to certify the Honda bits: 32,000CAD

ACME SUPER DUPER DISCOUNT rate for "certified" ( and completely obsolete from an engineering standpoint ) parts: 5,000CAD

In any case. One point someone made the other day was; if some of the older lighter aircraft, that everyone considers stalwart old-school, original airplanes were made today, they'd be licensed as ultralights. They fit in the weight category and would be much, much cheaper to sell. Which is kind of the point of the smaller aircraft, to put them within reach of the average pilot. Trust me, theres enough makes and models out there for the higher end crowd if you have a few million kicking around.

Sorry if I get to ranting a little. I see it in peoples eyes when I tell them I'm flying ultralights. They might not say it to my face, but I see it now and then and a few people have made a comment or two... I obviously don't feel the same way, or I wouldn't strap myself into one!

In any case, its been a blast!

The first couple weeks were spent doing groundschool.

Its truly amazing how little you actually know about something until you try to teach it to someone else. Subjects I thought of as having "down-cold" were suddenly giving me doubts, old acronyms were missing letters, formula weren't formulating and it was politely pointed out that the faux-lesson I just presented to my instructor-playing-student contained completely incorrect information. Ugh. Nothing like convincingly teaching someone completely wrong information!

I've built most of my lesson plans for the ultralight-permit syllabus, and still need to do some fine tuning, but we've since moved on to the flying part of the course. I have a few more PGI's ( Preparatory Ground Instruction - lesson plans ) to work up and rehearse / get critiqued on, but it's nice to get out of the books and back into and aeroplane.

Our school has three main aircraft that we train with. One I flew a few months ago on a fam flight / joy ride .

Alas, after my first training flight in this one, there was a hangar rash incident and it is down for repairs.

Hangar Rash is a nice little term used when an aircraft is damaged on the ground, usually during operations putting it into or out of a hangar. Where I work, we have a company policy of a minimum of three people on a tow into or out of a hangar. One person driving the pushing / pulling equipment and two more " wing-walkers " who take up position off the wings and/or tail of the aircraft to watch out for obstructions, walls, other aircraft that the driver may not be able to see as clearly from their position.

Given that a small dent on a wing or tail of a corporate jet can instantly cause tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs ( I am NOT exaggerating ), this policy is well worth the manpower costs it exacts.

So, I have just finished my checkout on one of the other aircraft, a Rans S-6 Coyote.

( Not the actual plane )

Checkout consisted of a few flights with the instructor and going through some of the basic maneuvers that I would be teaching in it. Takeoff, landing, steep turns, slow flight, power on and off stalls, forced landings, precautionary landings and familiarization with its equipment, performance and checklists.

Now I will be doing a few solo flights to get a little smoother and proficient with the aircraft. My first flight in it without the instructor was an eye opener. Even more than a Cessna, the difference in performance with a single occupant is pretty dramatic.

The Coyote has a Vfe ( Maximum Flap Extension ) speed of about 65 mph. We use flaps on every takeoff as we operate off a relatively short grass strip, every takeoff is a soft field AND a short field takeoff. The aircraft will takeoff in less than 300 feet, so the 1200 foot runway is only " relatively " short. However, it has fantastic climb performance, particularly with a solo occupant, so you have to pitch up pretty aggressively on takeoff to keep the speed under 65mph to avoid over stressing the wings and flaps.

Something else that has been a bit of an eye opener is the rudder.

As it turns out, you actually need to use it in these aircraft.

I'm only half-joking, but its something I definitely need to work on.

On your basic Cessna 152 or 172, the rudder is used to control useful yaw and to counter any "adverse" yaw.

The only problem is, the engineers when designing these docile training aircraft, pretty much took care of all the adverse yaw. Sure, there is some adverse yaw effects that are unavoidable, but they are very slight in relation to some aircraft.

A good example of adverse yaw is Aileron Drag. When the ailerons are used, they deflect upwards on one wing and downwards on the other. This creates more lift on one wings and "defeats" lift on the other. The net effect is that the aircraft banks. Very useful when you want to turn. The problem is that whenever you create lift, you also create drag. So the wing that rises ( has more lift than the other ) has more drag acting on it than the other wing. This drag tends to pull the aircrafts nose in the opposite direction of the one in which you are trying to turn.

On a Cessna, the engineers came up with a couple different solutions to minimize this effect. The ailerons are " differential friese ", they project into the airflow more on the down-going wing in order to create some equalizing drag on the other side . The aileron on the lift-producing ( rising ) wing also project a little of the forward edge of themselves above the wing creating some more equalizing drag.

Net effect, on a Cessna, you roll the airplane with the ailerons and the aircraft banks into a turn and will start to turn in the direction you want it to. You might ( should ) add a little rudder to counter any remaining adverse yaw and make sure its a nice coordinated turn. If you are a new pilot, or just have " lazy feet " you might not put much, or any, rudder in and you will still turn.

I always told myself during my initial training that I would not have " lazy feet ". I listened to the old timers complain about the young whipper snappers and their lack of rudder savvy and mentally affirmed, " I wont be that guy. ".

Sure, I watched the ball in the turn coordinator, made sure it stayed in the middle as best as I knew how. I read Stick and Rudder by Mr. Wolfgang Langeswieche and made sure that whenever I moved the ailerons, I also moved the rudder.

Problem was, the engineers at Cessna cheated me out of a good education. The rudder amounts I put in were mostly a slight pressure on the pedals. Rarely did it need more than a slight nudge to keep the ball centred.

Now, flash forward to my time in the Coyote..... This plane has very simple systems. The compromises that keep it under 1200 Lbs means the rudder has to be used in its original design purpose.

I kid you not, if you do not use rudder, there are times when you bank the airplane and it will do nothing in effect of moving the nose in the direction you want it to. In fact, it is possible to bank the airplane in one direction and with your feet on the floor ( not using any rudder ) turn the airplane in the opposite direction you want it to go.

I finally get what they mean when they say " kick " rudder. The amount of rudder required, and the duration that it is applied is very much like a kick. Firm pressure, relatively quickly, while the ailerons are applied to start the bank, and releasing / applying opposite rudder as the aileron application is taken out.

It took me a few tries to get used to the grass runway and get over my nervousness as to its length ( or lack thereof ), but I actually feel a lot more comfortable on grass now then on a paved runway.

Yesterday I went out working on my checkout on one of the other aircraft, and we did some practice forced approaches in the circuit. This is where the instructor will randomly pull the throttle to idle and state " you have an engine failure ". The goal of the exercise is to make sure you can glide to a landing, on the runway, without power, from any point in the traffic pattern.

When I used to do these during my initial training, it was all about making the runway. A forced approach off-airport exercise was about running through the procedures in trying to get the engine re-started, communicating to ATC and your passengers about what you were doing and where, as well as making a specific chosen safe landing spot.

This time, the instructor asked that I go through the whole procedure while in the circuit as well, instead of just accepting the failed engine and concentrating solely on landing on the runway.

I guess this makes sense. Were it for real, I'm pretty darned sure I'd try to get the engine going before I accepted a gliding approach that "theoretically" should result in a normal runway landing. It did throw me for a little curve initially though, and I'm going to use that as the convenient excuse for a couple of fairly poor approaches. All of which were followed by some pretty darn good landings if I do say so myself.

I laughed about it with the instructor afterwards, I was as surprised as he was that a series of consistently poorly flown approaches, led to consistently decent landings.

I'm pushing to get the majority of the course completed by the end of May. In a perfect world, the whole thing. I need another 10 hours or so of flight in Ultralight category aircraft, as well as a pass on the written and flight tests.

One thing I am really enjoying though, is the atmosphere out at the field.

Most of the students are there because they want to get a license to fly for fun. Very few people will ( intentionally ) start the path to a commercial license with an ultralight permit. So, the main goal for everyone, along with learning of course, is to have fun.

Almost everyone I've met so far has that spark of passion for things aviation, a very good dose of curiosity, but mixed nicely with a its-sunny-lets-go-flying!!!! attitude that is very often absent around the flight schools that are training studious young types dead-set serious on an airline career.

Oh, this happened recently as well.

A Cathay Pacific A340 was the victim of a bomb-scare. A caller in Richmond, BC, according to the news, called in a bomb threat against this arriving aircraft. F-18 fighter jets intercepted it and escorted it down to landing in Vancouver.

The plane parked out on an unused runway and all the passengers offloaded onto busses. I presume to be interviewed.... Their bags were then offloaded and searched as well.