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Even Unusual-er Attitudes

Popping my Foreflight Cherry

For today’s lesson, my instructor said we could do one of two things: fly dual to the practice area, after which I would fly solo to the practice area, OR spend some time working on my required 3 hours of simulated flight by instruments. Somehow, we ended up doing both! Here’s to efficiency!

The GPS had been taken out of the airplane for maintenance, so at first we thought I wouldn’t be able to solo to the practice area. I can technically get there and back without it, but my instructor wanted it there as a safety backup. It took me a second to put it together that I had something just as good, if not better: the Foreflight app installed on my iPad Mini, along with my portable GPS.

General aviation has, over the past few years, vaulted into the 21st century. No more carrying impossible-to-fold paper maps and binders full of airport diagrams and information! Now available: incredible apps that combine moving maps, airport info, GPS tracking, and up-to-date weather and notifications. There are a few to choose from, but I went with Foreflight, and I LOVE it. For years I used to sit around, planning imaginary flights on SkyVector.com. Now I got to transfer that enthusiasm to a full-powered flight planning tool, inputting my aircraft specs and pulling wind measurements from the Internet. I had yet to use it in the cockpit, though, as I was trying to keep things simple. Don’t ask me why I defined simple as “attempting to fold and unfold huge maps in a tiny cockpit, and having the wind from an open window blow airport diagrams out of my hands while taxiing”. So now, the perfect opportunity to try it out in the cockpit!

The Flight

We hopped in the airplane together and, after a loooooong wait at the runway threshold, finally got into the air. Gorgeous days like this one mean long takeoff lines and crowded airways. Once we got to the practice area, he declared we would be working on simulated instrument flight.

Learning how to fly regularly only by reference to the instruments (i.e. when flying in clouds, when there is no outside visual reference) is an add-on rating you can get after you have obtained your Private Pilot’s License. But, because lots of Private Pilots never get an instrument rating (it is fairly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive), and plenty of Private Pilots still die after they inadvertently fly into cloudy weather and become disoriented, the Private Pilot training requirements include at least some instrument flying time. The idea being that Private Pilots without an instrument rating need to know at least enough to keep control of the airplane and make a 180 degree turn to get back out of the clouds.

How do we simulate flying into instrument conditions, you ask? Well, we use “foggles”. (And you should really stop asking your computer questions, it’s weird.) Foggles are ridiculous-looking goggles with opaque areas that restrict your vision in certain sectors, the idea being you can only see the instrument panel, and nothing outside the aicraft. I put them on, but had to adjust my butt in the seat because I could still see a little bit of the side window. It made for an awkward bit of flying, but I’m no cheater! We practiced maintaining our altitude and heading, then did a bunch of heading changes and altitude changes. If anything, it is intense mental exercise. My eyes were flitting back and forth between the instruments, taking in each discrete bit of information, while my brain tried to reconcile those bits into a mental picture of status and trend.

Remember Unusual Attitudes?

Yeah, I did them with the foggles on. Holy crap. It was the same setup: I put my head down, eyes closed, my instructor disoriented me, before I opened my eyes and recovered from whatever crazy situation he had put is in. Except this time I wasn’t allowed to look outside.

Eyes open. Attitude indicator. Ok, pause, shake off the panic. The wind outside rushes faster past the aircraft, an urgent rumble topped with a chord somewhere in the alto register that gets louder by the moment. Attitude indicator. OK, we are diving. And turning. Pull the engine to idle. Level the wings. The airspeed still increasing, thrill in my stomach mixing with fear in my mouth, like bombing down a dirt road in a high-school friend’s pickup truck. I pull back on the yoke. Our bodies get heavier, the unfathomable mass of the Earth urging us closer. High-school physics whip through my thoughts: weight = mass times gravity. The teacher didn’t mention anything about a seemingly-insane flight instructor. The tiny airplane in the attitude indicator slides slowly up from the brown to the blue, crudely simulating the view I would have if I could look outside. And that’s it. We are back in straight-and-level flight, 7AD a stable platform in the sky once again, calmly shepherding two people along the coast at 2,000 feet.

Did we do it again? You bet your ass we did.

Solo to the Practice Area

Once we had enough fun, I flew us back to the airport. He asked if I was ready to head out to the practice area on my own, I quickly said yes, preflighted and restarted the plane and off I went. The crowded airspace caught up to me after takeoff this time. Once I cleared the Class D and switched to approach to try to get flight following, it was non-stop chatter. When I finally got my request in, the controller said “unable, call back in 10 minutes.” Oooooooook. Well this is new: my first solo airborne decision-making quandary. Nothing feels lonelier than a new solo student pilot with a curveball in his lap. We ALWAYS have flight following. How can I not fly with flight following? It’s so busy out here! Within the span of 20 seconds, I vacillated between the fear of a kid who lost his parent in the grocery store and the kind of euphoria that comes to that kid in the same situation a few years later: FREEEEDOM! I COULD GO ANYWHERE! I eventually decided to press on and at least spend a little bit of time in the practice area. Luckily the controller called me back personally within about 5 minutes and offered up a transponder┬ácode to get me on his radar screen. I didn’t have much time at the practice area so I did two 360-degree steep turns and then a bit of slow flight before turning around.

As I headed back to the airport, an immense feeling of satisfaction washed over me. The inner shoreline passed underneath me and I watched the boats below buzz back towards their nests, the lengthening shadows signalling an end to both our journeys. I was master of this machine. Master of the air.