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Hop #17

Today was supposed to me more of the same (spoiler: It mostly was). This is A Good Thing; lack of surprises when flying is highly to be preferred. Went to the airport a bit early to try to catch my CFI - since I'm solo now, much of my flying is practice alone, and I needed him to sign me off to take the FAA written exam. When I got to the airport, I arrived at the same time as a mother and her young son - 13? 14? - who was there to fly with my CFI. Before they headed out, I explained I needed signoff for the written, and we arranged to meet at the end of our flight slots, at which point I would take a practice written test for him. With that sorted, I collected the clipboard and went out to preflight 12732.

As we all walked out, I mentioned that I'd like to get checked out in the Piper Warrior, since the school has four of those. My CFI nodded but mentioned something along the lines of "Aw, I dunno, I'd much rather fly a 172 anytime."

"Really? You don't like the Warrior? Why not?"

He made a noncommittal noise which I interpreted as 'it's hard to explain when we're walking to different airplanes' so I let him off the hook. He and the younger pilot headed for the hangar to preflight the Gobosh, and I pulled the keys out of the clipboard and headed for 12732. The door was locked (why? Why do people lock the door on a jank 1974 Skyhawk with no decent avionics? It's not like this file-cabinet lock is going to stop anyone anyway) and when I put the key in...it just spun. Without unlocking the door.

I turned it experimentally, bemused, and the key - with the lock cylinder still around it - slid back out of the door. I looked at the key and cylinder, and then at the hole in the (still locked) door, and went back into the office holding up the key. "Uh, is this common for the 172?"

They all looked at the key, mystified, for a few seconds and then laughed uproariously. Me included. "No," was the general answer. Finally, someone said "Wait, is it still locked?"

"Yup."

More laughter.

Luckily my CFI is a skinny guy. He managed to get in the (unlocked) baggage door in the tail, grab the tow bar from the rear shelf, reach over the rear seat and pull the door handle to unlock it. I waved thanks and threw my stuff in the plane, then pulled out the stepladder and fuel measures and did the walkaround. Oh wait, we never went over that, did we? Well, on a Cessna Skyhawk, it looks approximately like this:

  • Master switch on, check fuel? Ugh, looks low
  • Flaps down
  • Master switch off
  • Gust lock removed
  • Drain fuel from left wing tank (no water)
  • Check port side of fuselage on the way to the tail, check VHF antenna
  • Check left stabilizer
  • Check left elevator, move elevators through full range of motion - hm, slight 'thwap' noise with it nearly full down? Check cables/attachments/hinges
  • Check rudder and vertical stabilizer, move rudder to check cables/attachments/hinges
  • Check right elevator, hinges/attachments
  • Untie tail tie-down
  • Check right stabilizer
  • Check starboard side of fuselage on the way forward, including the ELT antenna
  • Check right landing gear (wheel, brakes, tire)
  • Drain fuel from right tank (no water)
  • Check right flap connections, track, and that it's fully extended and set in place.
  • Check right aileron. Examine connections, tie rod, hinges; ensure it moves through full range and that the yoke moves appropriately in the airplane, and that the left aileron moves in the opposite direction
  • Check strobe and position light (green) on the right wingtip (aircraft to the right have right of way)
  • Check leading edge from tip to root
  • Untie right wing tie-down
  • Set up stepladder just at the wing strut/body intersection. Climb ladder. Uncap right tank. Dip the tank? Aw, hell, 5 gallons. Gonna have to gas it. Replace cap.
  • Open inspection port. Unscrew dipstick and check oil. 6.5 quarts, good.
  • Pull fuel strainer drain for 1-2 seconds.
  • Duck down and check nose gear - oleo is compressed to 2.5 finger widths, should be 4, but the airplane is going in for its 100 hour later today, and there's an official squawk about the nose gear and shimmy damper on the clipboard, so OK. Check nosewheel and tire.
  • Around front, check the prop (no dings I haven't seen) and spinner (all screws in, surface clean).
  • Check inside intakes for obstructions and check alternator belt for tightness/condition.
  • Hunch down and check air intake filter (clear) and twin landing lights (unbroken).
  • Around the left side of the nose, check the static air intake is clear.
  • Set up stepladder. Uncap left tank. Dip. 6 gallons. So 11 gallons. This airplane uses approx. 9 gph doing practice maneuvers and pattern work; definitely not enough. Recap tank.
  • Check stall warning air intake clear.
  • Check pitot tube is clear.
  • Check leading edge out to the tip; check strobe and position lights (red).
  • Check left aileron for function and hinges/attachments/tie rod. Ensure range of motion OK.
  • Check left flap connections, track, and that it's fully extended and set in place.
  • Check left landing gear (wheel, brakes, tire).
Whew. Yes, that was from memory. I'm pretty sure I didn't forget anything. But when I do it, I carry the checklist card with me, you damn betcha, because the only thing worse that being at 3,000 feet and realizing you're going to die because your elevators aren't working is being there and realizing you didn't check them before you took off because you didn't use the checklist.

All was well except for two things - the slight 'thwap' noise from the elevators which I verified by moving the yoke full forward - it felt like it was catching on something under the instrument panel. I thought about it and tested it and decided it was OK for now - it sounded an awful lot like plastic catching; there was no resistance in the controls, and it only occurred at a position that would be really, really foolish to use during actual flight (nearly full forward deflection). Then thought about it some more and decided to be safe, so went in and grabbed one of the A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechs from the shop and asked him about it. "Oh, is it doing that again? Yeah, don't worry, there's a cable tie under the dash that's getting caught on the control rod. It's not critical. I'll retie it when you get back." Okay then. Thanked him, headed back out.

Fired up the plane and taxied over to the fuel stand; as I was pulling up, realized I'd never taxied here before and frantically checked my left wingtip. Couldn't see the wingtip, of course, but the shadows on the ground...DERP! Stopped the plane before the wing hit the shed over the pumps, and set the brakes. When I got out, trying to look casual (I meant to do that) I found that in fact I had one foot clearance. Decided to fuel it where it was, so I did that (grounding strap, card key, pump, hoses, HA I didn't spill avgas all over myself!) After redraining the fuel tanks in case water had got in, I got settled in the airplane, actually strapped all my gear in, donned my headset and fired up the airplane again. "Northampton Radio, Skyhawk 12732 for radio check."

"Skyhawk 732, radio is loud and clear."

"Thank you much, '732." Undid the brake and was careful to swing the airplane right, away from the shed. Whew. No touchie. Turned it 180 and headed back for One Four. As I turned to head down the taxiway towards the runway, the Gobosh (703GB) floated to a landing, their first time around the pattern. I taxied out to the departure end, swung the plane into the wind and did my preflight and runup (Ha, MORE CHECKLISTS):

  • Set parking brake
  • Flight controls free and correct (aileron left, right, elevators, rudder)
  • Flaps up
  • Check oil pressure and temperature
  • Radio - set to 122.7 and test (done)
  • Transponder - set to 1200, standby
  • Lights (beacon, strobe) on
  • Check behind me for other aircraft or personnel, nope
  • Throttle to 1700 RPM, feet on brakes
  • Check vacuum system suction - green
  • Check oil pressure - green
  • Turn ignition to left magneto only - 75 RPM drop, OK
  • Turn ignition to right mag only - 100 RPM drop, OK
  • Turn on carb heat - 50 RPM drop, proper
  • Throttle to idle - check minimum 700 RPM
  • Throttle to 1000
  • Set altimeter to field altitude of 122 feet
  • Set DG to agree with magnetic compass
  • Set transponder to 1200, ALT

At this point, the runup is complete and the airplane is OK, but we're not ready to fly. Crane my neck looking around, don't see anyone in the pattern, so perform final take-off checks:

  • Primer - check locked
  • Magnetos - check on BOTH
  • Fuel Selector Valve - check on BOTH
  • Elevator trim - set to TAKEOFF
  • Flaps - UP (look out windows, verify)
  • Mixture - set to RICH
  • Carb heat - Cold
  • Doors and windows locked
  • Seat belt/shoulder harness in place
Okay! Now we're ready! Check the sky again, nobody, so: "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is departing One Four Northampton, remaining in the pattern."

And with that, release the parking brake, goose the throttle and roll onto the active, turning to the right to align with the centerline. As soon as I am, throttle smoothly to full. There's a slight crosswind, so yoke turned to the right, rolling the correction slowly out as speed builds up. At 70 MPH, the airplane lifts off the ground, and immediately the speed starts to rise. At 80, I pull the yoke back to hold that speed, and the nose of the airplane lifts roughly to the horizon as I climb out.

Time for the this-never-gets-old laugh.

There was a fairly strong wind, and most of it was headwind on the active, so I banked somewhat steeply to turn crosswind and downwind. As I turned downwind, I was at pattern altitude, so I pulled power back and added carb heat. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is on a left downwind for One Four, Northampton." Had time to take a couple of pictures of the airport while on downwind. That's the Connecticut River, the airport (7B2), and Interstate 91 just behind it; that's the fairgrounds behind that, and Northampton the town behind it.

As soon as I was even with the numbers, I pulled power back and dropped in the first ten of flaps. Had to tell the airplane to go down, so I spun the trim wheel forward a couple of times and things got more relaxed. As soon as I saw the microwave tower off to my left, I decided to turn base a bit early as the wind (verified by the wind sock on the ground) was still blowing down the active and I didn't want to get pushed away on final. Did that, announced; second increment of flaps, and the airplane settled right to 80 MPH on base. Turned final a bit early, and the crosswind component was pushing me further from the runway, so I put in ten more flaps and a course correction and then settled down to watching my ground track. About halfway to the threshold, my ground track was aligned with the centerline (my nose was pointed a bit to the right, corrected for wind) but I was coming in a bit low, so I added some power - apparently I hadn't turned early enough, or the wind had picked up a bit. Watched the VASI lights move from red/red to red/white, and then fastened my eyes on the threshold and started pulling power out. As soon as I knew I had the runway (there were a few bumps and gusts, so I had the speed a bit high) I put both hands on the yoke and flew it down, down, down...

*thmp/ERRRK.*

Not bad. A slight sideways lurch from a last-second gust, but no problem at all, the airplane was already rolling with all three feet down by that point. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is clear of the active." Cleaned up the airplane (carb heat, flaps) and opened the window for the taxi back to the departure end.

This time out, I announced "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is departing One Four, departing the pattern to the east, Northampton," and did what I said I was doing. Laid the nose over the towers at UMass and kept climbing. As I did, I announced that I was heading for the practice area. By the time I got there, I was at 3,000 feet, so I rolled into a right bank to practice turns around a point. Oh, right, more opportunities for ACTION SCIENCE! ...I mean, pedantic expository education. Those instruments, starting top left and going clockwise:

  • Airspeed indicator. Currently shows I'm at 100 MPH, the top of the white arc, which means I could put flaps down.
  • Artificial horizon. Shows the beginning of my right bank, and the fact that the dot is on the horizon means I'm not nose up or nose down.
  • Altimeter. Currently at 3,000 feet plus, you know, just a touch.
  • Nav display for NAV1 (VOR) - not currently set, hence the orange tab in the center.
  • Nav display for NAV2 - not only not set, but INOP on this airplane.
  • Vertical speed indicator - indicates I'm climbing, just slightly.
  • Vacuum indicator (the small gauge) with the needle in the green, which means that my DG and artificial horizon are working.
  • Directional Gyro (also known as the Heading Indicator). My nose is at 210 degrees, or just west of south.
  • Turn coordinator (also known as turn-and-bank). This indicates that I'm in a right bank, and almost entirely coordinated - I should add a touch of right rudder if I'm in an OCD mood to be completely coordinated.
As I come around, I see this. I'm almost directly over the UMass Amherst campus; you can see the track stadium (Rudd Field?) at the bottom right. The road next to it is Route 116, and it heads south (left) and you can see it intersect Route 9 just over my nose cowling. If you follow Route 9 out into the distance, it will take you past the Hampshire Mall on the left side and over the Connecticut river; if you fly along it, it will take you almost directly into a base leg for One Four. We sometimes report 'heading for the bridge' to let other aircraft know we're taking that route.

So I practiced for about half an hour. I got better at S-turns across a road; the turns about a point still elude me, probably because today there was a noticeable wind from the south. As I got started: "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is over UMass at 3,000, maneuvering."

"Skyhawk 732, Cessna 57 Quebec is *also* over UMass at two thousand five hundred, maneuvering, I think we're a bit south of you."

Looked around a bit urgently. Couldn't see below my nose to the south, so banked right, and...oh yeah. "57 Quebec, I see you now. I can move over."

"732, no don't worry, we're moving to the north and west, we'll keep you in sight."

"Roger, 57 Quebec, I will remain at or above 3000 then." We checked in with each other a couple times, and both times one had the other in sight; after fifteen or twenty minutes, they moved off to the north.

After half an hour, decided I found ground reference manuevers boring, and would rather do landings (which really make you feel like a Real Pilot™). So I turned around towards the south, coming back along 116. "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is over UMass at 3000, descending towards the Malls, approaching Northampton from the east." Pulled power back to 1700 and put in carb heat (you always put in carb heat at low power, even if it's hot out, because carb ice can occur up to 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit in apparently clear air).

The airplane started to descend obediently at around 700 feet per minute, and I banked right about a half-mile past the intersection of 116 and 9 - that way I could join a downwind, not have to fly a long base. All came out fine - at pattern altitude, as I announced I was turning downwind, I heard "Northampton traffic, Light Sport 3 Golf Bravo is over the malls, approaching to join a left downwind for One Four behind Skyhawk 732."

Numbers, power out, carb heat already in, ten of flaps...flew the pattern around, and got a bit of float at the last second from a gust (clouds were rolling in and the drop in solar heating was causing some bumps) but made the turnoff with only a little bit of a stab at the brakes.

Did a few more landings, then brought the plane in, tied it down and went back into the shop. My CFI was there - he was talking to a father and college-age son who were coming in for a first lesson, so I pulled out my iPad and started working on a practice test. Another gent came in and asked about getting a check ride in the 172, only to find that the father and son and my CFI were waiting for it - and as soon as I'd come in, the manager had taken the clipboard and grilled me about the *thwap* noise, the lock problem, and the nosegear and then headed out carrying cable ties, so they were waiting to get the airplane back.

Managed a 94% on the practice test, so my CFI signed off my logbook and gave me the number for the testing service so I could arrange to take the test (I take it at the airport, but they have to come administer it). I chatted with the gent wanting a check ride - like me, he'd started flying around 20-21, and then life had gotten in the way, and he was back into it in his late forties. Also, I was mentioning to the desk clerk that I had been trying to locate my uncle's old airplane for a year or so - my uncle passed away in 1998, and his airplane went to the gent he owned it in joint tenancy with, and I lost track of him - but that I don't have full ID info on the airplane. I don't know its old N number or its serial number; I just know it's a Beechcraft C-24R Sierra, and that my uncle called it 'Sierra 162.' That could be either the end of its N-number or its serial number; the Sierras were serialized with 'MC-###' and MC-162 was a perfectly reasonable number. It turns out that the desk clerk owns a Beechcraft Sundowner (a plane my uncle had owned before the Sierra) and not only that, when I mentioned the name of the gent who my uncle had owned the plane with, said "Man, I think I've met him. Yeah, I have, I know I have." So he's going to look for me.

On the way out of the airport I did the Very Bad Thing and started looking at the prices for airplanes up on the notice board. Airplanes are expensive, all right? But what's sort of a freakout is that I could actually buy one. I mean, if I gave up all notion of replacing my car for four or five years, I could buy and operate a plane of the same model and in better condition than the one I train in. I wouldn't have to touch long-term investment money, either. Oh, so tempting. But honestly...what the hell would I do with it? I live in Manhattan, for pete's sake. This is why renting airplanes was invented.

But if I ever move to my Dad's place...look out.