So I have a fairly ridiculous number of hours for a student pilot. Part of this is because I've gone through the whole process twice. Part of it is because as an older, more aware of his own mortality and not as blessed with the reflexes and eyesight of youth person, I have been very intent on continuing to work with an instructor until I *felt* like I was ready to take the test.
Today we worked on test prep again. We stayed in the pattern and did takeoffs and landings. Soft field takeoffs, short field takeoffs; soft field landings and short field landings, and no-flap landings. Crosswinds were light and variable, but there, which made the whole thing (as Homer Price would say) ever-so-much-more-so. It took three times on the soft-field landing before I felt like I was really comfortable with it - I kept ending up working a bit too hard on touchdown. Finally, I identified the problem as two-part: one, I wasn't using enough elevator trim on landing, so I was having to work really hard to keep the yoke back and the nose up, which made it harder to handle turning off carb heat on touchdown because I couldn't really spare a hand. Those two things combined to make me a bit distracted, and the crosswind was pushing me around. Finally, I figured out what level of trim I should set, and on the third try I floated down to a no-squeal landing, held the nosewheel off until the stall horn hooted, and had the carb heat turned off pretty much right after main gear touchdown (you turn off the carb heat so as not to suck debris like grass and twigs and mud splatters into the carburetor, since all of those things might get thrown up on a soft field landing).
Short field I did twice; the first one I landed a bit long, but still stopped in good time. Finally my CFI gave me another tip: look for the spot that isn't moving. When on final approach, watch the ground through the windscreen (well, obviously) but look for what's not moving. One spot, somewhere out there, will not move relative to the windscreen, and that is where you're going to touch down. Same principle for collision avoidance - if you see another aircraft in flight, keep an eye on it; if it doesn't move relative to your windscreen (just gets bigger) you're going to collide with it. Change something and avoid.
So that helped quite a bit. I found that I had been guessing fairly wrong about my sink rate on final approach. This led to my being very leery of getting slow; in fact, I was having to hold the airplane in the flare for some time to bleed off speed, because I felt like I was sinking much faster than I actually was, so I was holding the speed high. This was due to the fact that the angle of attack is pronouncedly differerent from the glideslope on landing, so although it feels like you're heading for the grass short of the runway, in fact you're on course to touch down somewhere just past the numbers. I had been adding speed (pitching down, holding power in longer) to avoid that feeling of coming up short, and as a result I'd been coming over the threshold with too much speed and/or height, and floating. Using the 'spot not moving' technique, I managed to flare and get stall horn and touch down only perhaps twenty-five feet past my intended touchdown spot, which was loads better.
No flap landings went better as well - the variable crosswinds meant I had to actually make side corrections using bank angle while holding the slip, as well as correct after coming over the threshold. I ended up right of centerline on all three of those landings, but not too much, and it was the crosswind - I stopped in good time, with no flaps, and it felt fine coming down with the airplane pronouncedly sideways. I learned that as soon as you enter the slip (I had been entering too late, and floating long again) you have to drop the nose to counter the increased drag so you don't get too slow. On my second try, I managed it right - as soon as I went into the slip, I eased the nose down and my speed stayed constant, right under seventy MPH on final.
It all felt...well, pretty natural, actually. No nervousness anywhere. The solo cross country meant that I felt if my CFI had said "Hey, let's go to New Hampshire" I would have been able to say "Sure," and head off for a destination in the Granite State. I had my charts, I had my E6B, and he had tested me twice on diverting to an alternate airport (yesterday, which I didn't node, actually). That's a test of your ability to multitask in the cockpit, and it goes sort of like this: the instructor (or examiner, who I'm told will do this to me during the checkride) will have you plan a flight to a destination. At your first checkpoint, however, they will inform you that you need to 'divert to an alternate airport' (and give you the airport). This might happen in actual flight for any number of reasons; you might run into weather, your passengers might get sick (airsick or worse), or you just might realize you forgot to visit the Little Pilot's Room immediately before departure and really really need a bog.
In any case, the checklist for this procedure is (like the engine-out procedure, ugh) ABCDEF.
- A - Airport. Determine your (new) destination airport, and find it on your chart. Of course, you should know where you are, too.
- B - Best guess heading. Based on the chart, turn your airplane onto your best guess at a heading for the new airport. This won't be exact, but that's OK - you're doing best guess. If you know the winds, correct for them as best you can.
- C - Clock. Find a landmark on the chart that you're about to pass. Time yourself between that landmark and another on the chart, as carefully as you can (I had to buy a watch for the first time in 25 years, because, yeah, there's no clock in the airplane I fly and saying 'wait let me get my iPhone' will undoubtedly not be met with approval). Once you know your flight time, use that and the distance between the two (gained from the chart and the ruler edge of your E6B labelled 'SEC NM' - Sectional scale, nautical miles - and your E6B slide rule to determine your ground speed.
- D - Distance to airport. Determine rough distance using the chart.
- E - ETA. Based on your ground speed and current time, when will you arrive at the diversion field?
- F - Fuel burn. Based on your time enroute, how much fuel will you burn? Will you have enough to make your diversion?
In any case, we spent today doing landings, and I bounced none of them, skidded none of them, and was happy with all of them (and all were 'special condition.')
We landed and taxied back. I parked the airplane and shut it down, and we walked back inside. While I filled out my logbook, my instructor scribbled on one of the airport business cards, and said "What are your plans next week?"
"I thought I'd fly solo on Tuesday and visit the local airports again - Barnes, especially, for tower experience."
"Great." He handed me the card. "Here's the name and number of the local FAA Examiner. When you think you're ready, and I think you'd pass now, fill out your IACRA paperwork online, get me your FTN number so I can log it, and contact him and schedule your final check ride. Right now I think he's scheduling a couple weeks in advance."
"Will do." I took the card and filed it in my wallet, working for nonchalance.