Down Time

Well, another day of A-pool muster has come and gone. Today there weren’t even any announcements. I had a good mile-and-a-half run afterwards. It’s really a beautiful day today- clearer and cooler than we’ve been having. I haven’t even had to run the air conditioner. Unusual, perhaps, but I’ll take it.

My wife is flying down on Tuesday, so today I went over to the sailing marina to talk to a guy about renting a boat and taking her on her first sailboat ride. I’m going back Monday so I can prove to him that I actually can operate a small sailboat without breaking anything before he will let me rent from there.

Speaking of my wife- Yesterday she bought a piano. She’s been wanting one for a long time, and this week she found one on Craigslist, close to where she lives, for under $500. Turns out it was in really good shape. It’s also about the smallest piano she’s ever seen, which is good, because it will probably travel all over the country. So, it’ll be in her living room as soon as we can have it moved and tuned.

I’m glad she found a good piano at a good price because I promised her she’d have a piano before I get an airplane. Now I’ve just got to start saving my pennies…

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April Showers

All the folks who thought we were behind on rain this year must be loving life now. It’s been raining pretty steadily since last night, although it didn’t rain for muster this morning. I took myself for a run after muster and got rained on enough that I couldn’t tell what was water and what was sweat. But it really cut loose right after I got home, which made me glad I didn’t postpone my run.

My Lieutenant called me yesterday and said he’d approve my leave. So I’ll be outta here at the end of next week for a couple weeks with my wife, including our second anniversary. Then it’s right back here and right into API. The timing is working out perfectly so far. Even though I’ve been here three months and only done about 5 weeks worth of real work, my progress can still be considered very rapid. It’s just slow getting through here. But I’ve waited all my life for this, so a few more weeks won’t kill me.

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Drowning in the “A-Pool”

Now that IFS is done, I am back in the “A-Pool,” a sort of limbo where Student Naval Aviators and Student Naval Flight Officers are essentially kept in a tank until they are able to be placed into classes for Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API). When a class is getting ready to start, they open up the tank and siphon off as many of us as they need.

A-pool used to be a pretty sweet gig. Checking in by phone once or twice a week was all that was required. But, as with all good deals in large organizations, people abused it. Someone got caught thousands of miles away without leave. So now we all have to muster, in person, at 0730 five days a week. Some Ensigns get fished out of the A-pool for “stash jobs” filling menial positions in offices around the base. The common refrain among these is “killlll meeeee.”

Case in point: Today. I showed up at 0730 and fell in with the herd. Two stash Ensigns with clipboards made a couple of announcements. Then comes the critical moment where the one speaking says either “I have A through N” or the other half of the alphabet. The herd of Ensigns then separates itself into two gaggles and begins swarming around the poor guys with clipboads. We muscle in as close as we can and hold up our ID cards until he crosses our names off his list. And that is a day’s work for a commissioned officer, unless they cull out large numbers of bodies for odd jobs around the base which could take an hour or two.

But I wasn’t quite done. I had some leave papers to submit, so I went into the Student Control office, where one stash Ensign helped me fill out the papers and another inspected my car. Finally I went across the hall to the flight management office (the tank-siphoners) and waited in line with a dozen other Ensigns to hand in my leave papers to yet another stash Ensign. Friday morning I will go to the quarterdeck (staffed 24/7 by stash Ensigns) to see if my leave was approved.

So after my long day at the office, I was home at 9. In the morning. Fortunately for me, I’ll be on leave in another week or so and then when I come back I’ll be starting API on May 19. But there are some guys (mostly SNFOs, not pilots) who have been here since November and haven’t started yet. Those guys are hurting from boredom. But, we live in a place with beautiful white sand beaches, so it’s hard to complain about working 7:30-9:00 in the morning.

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The End of the Beginning

I learned a lot about flying today. You can probably guess that’s a nice way of saying things didn’t go as planned.

The weather was beautiful. There was gas in the tanks. I was alert and sharp and had a great briefing and filed my flight plan all the way to New Orleans. Our departure was smooth, and within ten minutes of taking off we were at 4,500 feet, skimming along cloud tops at well over two miles per minute. The 60-degree outside air felt great coming through the vents. Before I knew it, we were over Gulfport, MS, catching glimpses of the coastline below us as the morning sun shimmered on the water and puffy clouds.

But then something else started shimmering. In illuminated red letters, the word “VOLTS” began flickering on the instrument panel. This is the equivalent of a red flashing battery symbol on a car dashboard, and meant there wasn’t enough electrical power in the airplane to go around. At first it flashed only sporadically, but within a few minutes it was flickering pretty regularly. Rocky, my helpful ghost, informed me that it was my decision what to do because he wasn’t even supposed to be there on this flight. I really wanted to see New Orleans today, but I realized the safe thing to do was to turn around and head home. By the time we were established on our return course, the VOLTS warning was glowing steadily.

Airplane engines have magnetos for ignition, and therefore don’t depend on a battery and alternator like a car does just to stay running. The engine would have kept running even if the battery died, but we would have lost our radios. There are procedures for landing at an airport if your radios are dead, and Rocky verified I knew them. To conserve battery power, we shut down one of our radios and some navigation equipment we weren’t using. Closer to the airport, we shut down the GPS so all we had on was one radio and our transponder.

We landed and parked without a hitch. A timely decision to turn around prevented an annoying problem from becoming an emergency. However, I came up short on my required flight time to graduate IFS.

Fortunately, there was another airplane available, so Rocky and I went back out and did some landing practice at St. Elmo. I got a chance to actually see someone in the traffic pattern without a radio- there was an ultralight aircraft flying around. The second flight was a blast because the clouds had blown out and visibility was the highest I’d ever seen. It was a beautiful spring day in Alabama, and I made a few good landings before we came back home.

It’ll probably be about 3 months before I get to fly an airplane again. That’s kind of a bummer, but I’ll always remember the good lessons I’ve learned so far. I think Rocky’s parting advice holds true for a lot of things: “Fly the airplane until the last piece hits the ground.” I guess sometimes we have to just hold on and follow through.

The next few weeks’ entries here won’t be filled with tales of aerial derring-do, but there will no doubt be interesting developments in the story of this naval aviator that even I can not yet imagine, so stay tuned, folks.

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Gator International

Today set the record for the earliest I’ve had to get up for an IFS flight. I was out the door at 0530. We started off heading for Monroeville, but about 20 miles up the road Rocky diverted us to a little grass strip north of Mobile he refers to as “Gator International” because there are (I’m totally serious) alligator-infested ponds on either side of the runway at one end. I didn’t see any alligators today, but there are many signs all around both ponds warning of the reptiles. Makes you really pay attention when you’re turning the airplane around that you don’t go off the runway.

The flight went very well. After we diverted, Rocky had me put on the hood and practice navigating on instruments, which I did just fine. I’m getting a lot more comfortable with the increased workload of cross-country flying. It’s really a lot of fun, and obviously the most important skill in piloting. After all, what use is the airplane if you can’t take it anywhere?

This flight was the solo cr0ss-country checkride, to sign me off for what would be a solo cross country flight on Monday except that Rocky will be a “ghost” reading a book in the right seat. Since I have some extra time available to complete my last flight, I was authorized to go somewhere besides Monroeville! Rocky suggested New Orleans Lakefront airport. It’s just over 100 nm from Mobile, so we should be able to get there and back in two hours of flight time. So looks like Monday morning we’re off to the Big Easy. I’m really excited to sink my teeth into a more complex flight and do some real navigation. Besides, I’ve never been to New Orleans, so it’ll good to see something new.

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On the Road Again

Another day, another hop, another lesson learned. Today’s flight started as another dual cross-country to Monroeville, but as soon as we got to Bay Minette my instructor informed me that we would be diverting to Jackson (AL), another airport about the same distance away but a little more to the west. Finding it was easy enough- I dialed the airport into the moving-map GPS and followed the pink line on the screen. We flew there (in a straight line this time), landed, and flew back to Mobile rather uneventfully. My only persistent problem seems to be a lack of checklist discipline, which Peggy blames on my previous flight experience in high school, where I almost never used an actual written checklist.

Tomorrow is my final check flight in the IFS program. I’ll be flying with Rocky, who is notoriously tough on checkrides, so I’ll have to bring my A-game. Rocky will also be on my “ghost solo” on Monday. The last flight of IFS used to be a solo cross-country, but after one student flipped a plane over and killed himself, the Navy started requiring an instructor to be on board as an observer, to intervene only if the safety of the flight was in immanent danger.

On my way home today I stopped by the Ferguson airport, near where I live, to find out what it would take to finish my private pilot’s license when I’m done with IFS. The good news is, I’m really, really close- probably as close as I’ll ever be. The bad news is, it would still cost about $1,500, which I’m just not sure I can come up with right now.

But, once I get winged, I can take a written test will make me an instrument-rated commercial pilot. I guess I’ll just have to wait until then…

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All Good Things…

Today was my last solo flight in the IFS program. it was bittersweet. I had hoped to be able to spend it flying free out in the practice area, where I wanted to fly as high as I could to get up over the haze and enjoy the view and the feeling of flying way up high. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me: Broken clouds at 1,300 ft., and the fact that I was supposed to shoot for a 0.7-hour flight because I’d gone a little long on my last couple of flights. So, I was restricted to the traffic pattern at Mobile Downtown.

It ended up being a very satisfying flight anyway. I made 5 landings, all of which were some of my very best ever. I touched down softly with the runway centerline between my main wheels on all five of them, and I’m sure the nosewheel touched down right on centerline on at least three. This was in spite of a light but noticeable breeze blowing straight across the runway.

Flying every day for the last three weeks has gotten me really comfortable in the airplane. Today I really felt like I had total, precise control over where I landed with regard to the runway centerline. It was really a great feeling. My traffic patterns were crisp and precise, with 30-degree-banked turns, rollouts right on course, and holding altitude within 20 feet on downwind. I realize these are the kindergarten skills of aviation, but it’s still immensely satisfying to just do it right and know you’ve done it right.

The worst thing about my flight today was nobody was there to see it. ;)

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Cross-Country

Today was my first cross-country flight in IFS. By the time I got home, I was as tired as if I’d pedaled the airplane to Monroeville and back. Cross-country flying for the first time is very difficult because it combines all the skills of flying the airplane with talking to unfamiliar controllers and navigating through unfamiliar areas, usually much too high to read the road signs.

Due to some weather delays, I ended up flying with a different instructor than I briefed with yesterday. Rocky was fine with my planned route: going directly between the navigation beacons on the two airfields. Peggy (the one I actually flew with) thought that was a bit lazy and made me do most of my navigation by dead reckoning alone. So, I had some trouble finding my course, which I had planned to do simply by intersecting a beam of radiation and following it in a nice straight line. It took me a while to get back on course.

Changes in plan notwithstanding, my calculation of groundspeed based on forecast winds turned out to be right on, so I crossed all of my checkpoints at EXACTLY the time I had planned.

Lucky for me, all the rest of my cross-country flights (all two of them) will be along the exact same route as today’s, so I’m sure I’ll be able to do much better.

I’m back up with the dawn patrol tomorrow. My classmate Louis and I are flying the same plane on back-to-back solos first thing in the morning, and then we have a ground instruction session.

It’s really sad that IFS is coming to an end. I’m really having a great time, and once this is over it will be months before I actually get to fly again. But it’s been a blast, and I still have a couple of good flights left. Tomorrow is my last solo flight, so I’m gonna live it up while I can!

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Dawn Patrol

Today’s flight was great- a whole hour in an airplane all by myself. I had a launch time of 7 am, which meant I had to leave here a little before 6, right at first light. The sun was up when I got to the airport, but still low in the sky. (I took the picture this morning) The wind was dead calm. Visibility was reported at 10 miles, but was really more like 4-5 in haze.

Shortly after takeoff, the tower asked if I could help him check his emergency radios. I tuned over to the designated emergency frequency (121.50 MHz) and responded as he checked out two or three radios. I guess I was the only one in the area.

The practice area was all mine, too. I practiced tracking VOR radials and navigating with reference to my chart so I’d have more than just Microsoft Flight Simulator experience in navigation when I go for my first cross-country flight with Rocky tomorrow. Then I came back for three landings at Mobile, with an increasing crosswind on each one.

The other good thing that happened today was my classmate and carpool buddy Louis Jackson had his first solo. He and Rocky had my plane right after I was done with it. Since I had to wait for Rocky for an hour of ground instruction after Louis’s flight, I was there when they got back and was able to congratulate him.

Soloing an airplane is a big step in an aviator’s career. To me, that’s the day you become a pilot. Once you’ve flown an airplane, by yourself, and returned safely to earth, you are never quite the same ever again. The most important thing a solo flight does for you as a student pilot is to prove to YOU that you can do it. Like so many things in life, we are often capable of much more than we believe. I guess learning to fly, or “getting your wings” is not so much about receiving something, but finding something that’s already there. Maybe we’ve had our wings all along, and we just need to find them and learn to use them.

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Cow Tippin’

Today’s hop was a lot of fun. Weather was severe clear, winds light and variable. We headed out to somewhere I’d never been- another little grass strip just west of Mobile Regional. My instructor was the same laid-back 20-something guy I went to the grass field with last time.

We used the GPS to find the airport. I was too high on the first pass, so we waved off. Second time around I nailed it, and we floated in for a nice soft landing and the dusty embrace of dry Alabama field grass. This runway was a little bumpier and not mowed as recently as the last one, but still remarkably smooth and a lot of fun. We used every inch of it the first time, as I wasn’t in any particular hurry to stop.

After a couple of soft-field landings, we demonstrated short-field technique. That focuses on hitting a particular point on the runway and then pulling the flaps up and standing on the brakes. The first one of those, I brought it in a little too fast and we floated past our aim point by a couple hundred feet. That was still within the lesson standards, but I could do better. The second time around, I aimed for the same big brown spot and I totally nailed it! I think we must have hit within one wingspan of the point. With the flaps up and heavy braking, we stopped in less than half of the runway. (The picture captions, from left to right, read: aiming point, runway, and cows.)

Monday will be a great flight, too. They’re giving me an airplane and one hour to do whatever I want with it (within safety, of course). Any suggestions?

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