Monday, February 23, 2009

Efficiency at Work

Un-freaking-believable. That's the phrase rolling through my mind right now!

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the DPE that did my instrument checkride. I'd been wondering why I had not ever received my new certificate in the mail. I thought maybe things were just backed up. Well, it turns out that the FAA had sent him a letter saying that my application was being rejected? 


He explained that apparently, I had entered all four of my names (I couldn't decide whether to drop my middle name or maiden name when I got married, so I kept both as middle names and just added on a new last name) into IACRA when I submitted the application for my instrument rating. I later learned that this interfered with the system in two ways:
1)It didn't match the three name version that I used when I got my original  private certificate. 
2) The system won't allow someone to have two middle names (but apparently is not designed to give you an error if you don't know this)! 

I later found the tiny print that states this fact if you print out the instructions sheet that go with the old form you could use to fill out by hand. The only way to know this in the new online system is if you click the help file next to the name blank. And honestly... how many people *think* they need help to fill in their name! I guess my original instructor knew this fact-- I got my original certificate when they were transitioning in the new system-- so we filled out both the manual form and the online form, and he had read that little instruction sheet for the manual form. Given how few women get their pilots license (only 6% of pilots are women), it probably doesn't come up that often.

So after some discussion-- he had no idea how to fix this particular problem, he decided he'd get copies of my passport, drivers license, and pilot certificate and see what he could do. I was already meeting him for my commercial checkride, so I just brought everything then. 

No dice. So then we decided that we should try just submitting a new application all together-- which required meeting again, this time with my instrument instructor. We met yesterday and went through the tedious process of entering my information (carefully using only three of my names), and all of my flight time, etc. It's not an intuitive system and there are several awkward handoffs you have to make in creating an application (apologies to anyone out there who designed it... but then, I imagine you KNOW that it's not an intuitive system). We get to the very last step-- where the DPE has to sign the form... and ERROR. The system tells us that the practical (i.e. the checkride) is out of date. Yikes! Now what?! We tried calling the help desk, but it's Sunday afternoon and we don't get anyone. So we gave up and went home. 

Today I get a call from the DPE who has spent much of the morning trying to unravel this mystery. He has an answer. I must now go to the local FSDO (locally it's close by-- at Dulles) and have an appointment with a FAA inspector. If the inspector agrees that I am who I say I am, and understands what has transpired, then hopefully he/she will sign off on the paperwork and send a letter to Oklahoma City to explain to the FAA HQ what has happened.

Oh- and it gets more fun. I DID pass the commercial checkride (yay-more on that to come!)-- which we submitted as an "unrestricted commercial rating". However, to qualify for an unrestricted commercial rating, I must have an instrument rating. And while I am valid to fly with my temporary instrument rating for another two months, I don't know what the system will do if my correct commercial paperwork makes it through prior to my revised instrument paperwork. We may have to go through all of this again! Argh! Maybe I should have listened when my husband said that having four names would make life confusing!

Friday, February 20, 2009

How to Slow an Arrow

After working with R on Saturday, I decided to do a little Arrow practice in the pattern on Sunday. Husband came with me and sat right seat for the flight(s). He had with M and I on a previous pattern flight-- but only in the backseat where there are no headset jacks. So this was still pretty new to him. It was also my first time to fly the Arrow without an instructor.

We were focusing on soft field operations. I felt good about short field, but wanted to make sure I had the softs down. The first two take offs and landings went pretty well. I felt reasonably good about my control of the airplane-- and then takeoffs and landings were both within tolerances. Given that I had a volleyball game and needed to leave the airport soon, we decided to do one last circuit-- and this time I'd do a power off 180 just to make sure I was polished on those.

As we came abeam the first stripe, things looked good. No one was in front of me though it had previously been busy in the pattern, so I could do the landing as planned. Unfortunately, with the stiff headwind, I didn't turn quickly enough toward the runway, and put in flaps too early. We weren't going to make it. I did the "smart" thing and applied full power for a go around. No problems. I'm good with go arounds, though it does get my blood pumping. Little did I know just how good I'd become with go arounds before we were finished!

Coming back around for a second try, we ended up as number 3 on downwind. No worries-- I've been there before. But... this isn't my nice slow Cessna. Before I knew it, I was creeping up on the guy in front of me. So I powered back, and even threw in a notch of flaps to slow myself down. What I didn't count on was that this guy insisted on going to the end of the earth and back before turning base! Seriously-- I'm pretty sure he went close to the edge of the Bravo airspace! I didn't want to keep going and bust the Bravo myself... but it didn't seem like a good idea to do a 360-- there were too many other planes in the pattern, and too much crazy airspace around. So I decided to slow it as much as I could and turn almost immediately after him. All should have still worked out-- he landed at the very beginning of the runway. I saw him miss the first turnoff... but no big deal, he'll get the second. Then he missed the second! And he's going pretty slowly! My forehead is now starting to perspire a bit and I'm biting my lip. He finally started to turn at the third turnoff, but I was way too close. I'd already made the decision to go around a second time.

I thought for sure we'd get down the next time around. I knew to power back to try not to get too fast. But someone had slipped into the pattern just ahead of us, and yet again, I found myself needing to go around. By this time, Husband was trying to give pointers. I was just trying to stay calm and to be disciplined in doing my before landing checks. Definitely the time when it would be easy to make a mistake. After this, I powered way back. From the beginning of downwind. And luckily, though there was again traffic in front of us, I had plenty of room. And so we finally made it on the ground-- after three go arounds. If nothing else, I felt far more familiar with the airplane. Almost like it was an initiation rite or something. Fun times.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stage Check... Part 2-- and Three Airplanes!

In my last post, I mentioned that I needed to finish the complex portion of my stage check prior to taking my commercial checkride on Monday. So I arranged to fly with one of the higher ups from our flight school on Saturday. But first-- I flew two other aircraft!

For me, this is sort of a big deal. I have roughly 315 hours in our Cessna 172... and about 12 hours in the Arrow (to get my commercial) and about 2.5 hours in other Cessnas. So I still get pretty excited to fly other aircraft. Saturday morning, after a particularly draining session with our trainer at the gym, Husband and I went out to the airport. Our plan was for me to demonstrate the commercial maneuvers to Husband (he'd not seen them before), land at MRB to get an oil change, and then I'd fly another plane back to JYO in time for my stage check. After taking a few looks at the weather, we launched into cloudy skies and headed over the ridge.

I started out by demo'ing the "steep" steep turns (i.e. 50 degrees +/-5) required for commercial. It was fun to see Husband's reaction. I've been practicing these since September (lots of delays!), so I've kind of forgotten the thrill that you have the first time you go beyond normal 45-degree steep turns. Next, I did a few chandelles (basically, a climbing turn where you start at cruise airspeed, and end up about 10 knots above a stall). Again-- he was fascinated. Then we did a couple of lazy 8s. This is the maneuver I've struggled the most with-- today was no exception. Not knowing the maneuver, he was also excited by these, though I was pretty disappointed with my performance. I did one set not quite to PTS, and one set that was just inside of standards- but neither were great. Finally, I finished up with a few 8s on pylons. By this time, we needed to boogie on over to MRB to drop off our plane and pick up the other.

The other plane was a 172-R (ours is a 172-S)... and was of course steam gauges. I felt somewhat daring-- this was the first time I flew a steam gauge all by myself (I was almost surprised that this was approved-- but then again, it is almost just like our plane, except for the gauges-- so I wasn't worried about doing a short, very familiar trip in the plane by myself). I preflighted thoroughly-- the plane had just had a 100 hour, I think... and called for permission to depart. As I climbed, I felt my stomach tighten just a little, but as I began to fly my way back to JYO, I relaxed a little. As a private student I had problems with navigation -- but as I've gained flying hours, my navigation skills have significantly improved-- and not just when using the fancy screens. Soon, I was approaching JYO and talking to another plane who was right off my wing. I let him know I'd slow down and let him go in front and sequence myself in behind. I never can understand when people know there's another plane right next to them and yet don't take proactive steps to sort our the sequence prior to entering the tiny little maneuvering area around the Leesburg airport.

On the ground, I had to get help from the line guy to push the plane back in place. At first I wondered if there was something wrong, but then I realized it was just pushing it uphill! Wow- that makes a big difference! I then hurried over to meet R, who was giving me part two of the stage check. I was a little nervous about this as I knew he is big into systems-- and I am not the most mechanical person. But he soon put me at ease and I really enjoyed the time we spent going through the electrical, propeller, landing gear, and other systems of the two planes (our plane and the Arrow). I looked at my watch as we finished the oral portion and was shocked to see we spent over two hours talking-- and this was in addition to the hour I'd spent with the head of the flight school. I then went and preflighted the Arrow for the flight portion of the stage check.

As I finished, R came out and did a walk around with me, pointing out a few more things that I didn't know about the aircraft (and a few things that I did). I'm always worried that I don't know enough about preflighting an airplane-- preflighting is usually something your instructor goes over only at the very beginning-- and then you're on your own. The problem is that as you learn to fly a given aircraft, your understanding of what is important changes as well-- but typically, we don't get an updated lesson on preflighting from an instructor. So I was happy to do this walk around with R to update my knowledge of the plane.

Instead of just a few times around the pattern, R had let me know to plan to fly over to OKV and back for a landing or two. Given that it had been a while since I had flown the plane out of the pattern, this made me a little nervous. But it was actually fine. My biggest problem was that I mixed up in my head which runway was 32 and which was 14. I knew we needed to land 32 given the winds... but for some reason I completely spaced and turned them around in my mind. A little prompting from R, and I realized my mistake, but it meant I ended up flying upwind, crosswind, and then downwind for my approach. 'Doh! You would think after the 30 or so times I did approaches into OKV during my instrument training that I would know which side is which without even thinking... but then, I guess that whole not thinking thing is what got me in trouble (as I do know how to identify the runway direction).

I think we did a shortfield landing-- though maybe it was a power off 1800 (I was so tired by this point that things are a little blury), and then headed back to JYO. Before we returned, though, we did an emergency gear extension and R had me turn the master off completely (yes, we were outside the Mode C ring). I've never flown an airplane without any power before (it always seems too risky to do in our plane because so much is controlled by the G1000). It was very strange... and for some reason, seemed very quiet. I'm not sure if this is because the Arrow's radios tend to hum and squeal when they're on-- or if it was my senses confusing the fact that the screens were all black and colorless (i.e. quiet) with the auditory condition. In any case, I was happy to have the power back on and let my breathing return to normal.

Back at JYO, we did a softfield landing-- apparently the examiner has recently failed a commercial student for not being able to properly do a softfield. That may have been my first time to do a softfield landing in the Arrow. It wasn't horrible, but given how much heavier the Arrow is than our plane, I didn't do a great job in keeping the nose up. So R recommended a little soft/short practice to make sure I could do them well. More on that in another post. Other than that, he signed me off to do the checkride. Woo hoo!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Breaking the Blog-O-Pause

Whew. It's been a really long time since I blogged. I can tell because I'd never accessed my blog from the computer I'm using now! I have flown somewhat regularly since I last blogged... but lots has been going on in my life outside of flying.

In January, I left the company I'd worked with for over 5 years-- which of course brought with it all sorts of emotions. In the end, I'm happy to have left-- and am close to lining up (I hope!) some new work. Hopefully I'm not jinxing myself with that cryptic comment! So over the past few weeks, I've had a little time to do some fun things-- like a quick trip down in the plane to NC to see Mom and attend a UNC/Duke women's basketball game (awesome!). I used that trip to get the last couple of solo night hours that I needed for my commercial rating. I was worried that I might be nervous about the 2 hours by myself in the dark, but it was actually pretty fun. It was a beautiful night, and once I passed over the front line in central VA, the winds became more favorable and I zipped on down to Chapel Hill. Mom, Dad, and I had fun tromping around UNC, and then Mom and I screamed our best for the Tarheels during the game-- which was at the famous Dean Dome. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and had an uneventful trip back-- that included a few minutes of actual instrument before I broke through to a pretty blue sky. The only fly in the ointment is that the XM radio is not working right in the plane. It is definitely getting the signal and the information (I can even see on the screen what song is playing), but no sound. If anyone has any ideas as to what it could be, let me know!

I also took a trip to Texas to see my childhood best friends and my brother and his family. It was pretty cool to just take off during the week for something fun like that! I met up with 3 of my closest friends (see picture below) for some good Mexican food (yummy!). There are advantages to being older-- one of which is that we can enjoy a few margaritas along with our traditional fajitas! I can't even begin to think how many fajitas we've shared together over a lifetime of memories! It was fun to hang out with Brother and his family. They have three kids (#4 is on the way!) who are just too cute. I had a great time coloring, making cookies, watching movies, and generally being "Aunt Head in the Clouds"! Of course, my trip coincided with an ice storm in Texas and one in the northeast, so I also got to experience the joys of delayed commercial flights!

Speaking of commercial flights, I am scheduled to take my commercial checkride on Monday! Hopefully the weather and the airplanes will cooperate with this plan. Oh-- and I still have to finish the stage check needed to take the checkride. I've done the basic oral and the basic commercial maneuvers-- but got winded out before we could do the complex oral and flying (i.e. complex time in the Piper Arrow that I fly). I'm scheduled to do both of those tomorrow, and I'm hoping things go better with those than they did on Wednesday when I did the first half. For whatever reason, I found myself completely unable to think clearly or communicate well during the oral portion of my stage check with the head of my flight school. He asked questions that I definitely know the answer to, and I would either 1) not be able to understand (at all) the question that he was asking, or 2) my mind would go completely blank. It was humiliating-- especially because I know better! After going back over things in my head, I think I just got a bad case of nerves. I screwed up in my flight planning and didn't have the correct charts at home the night before. So I had to scramble that morning to finish out the planning. I never did feel together and prepared, and it showed.

Luckily, I pulled things together when we got in the plane and was able to fly pretty well. I stumbled a bit on the cross country navigation (it's been a while since I've navigated purely by visual waypoints with the timer, etc.!), though I managed to pull things back together. My weakest maneuver (no surprise here) was the lazy 8s... but I did *ok* on them. Several of my other maneuvers were spot on-- and I felt pretty good about the ride overall.