Sunday, June 29, 2008

Heights test....Check.

Cynthia, a local helicopter instructor, took me up in a Schweitzer 300. The heights didn't bother me much, which is great to know.

It was a spectacular experience, but it did raise some new questions for me about this path I've chosen. I need to mull on them for a while, but I wanted to get this video up.

By the way, I was paying close attention to the landing process, so I forgot to film it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fly Girl Kelly

A few weeks ago I met a girl who is training to be a commercial airplane pilot. It was a lucky coincidence; we just started talking out of the blue. (Or maybe synchronicity again?) She generously offered to take me for a ride in a Cessna 172 from her school. So we did. It was pretty incredible, to say the least, and best of all, the heights didn't bother me.

This Saturday, I'm going up in a Schweitzer 300 helicopter, which is small like the Robinson R22, with a local instructor. That will be the real heights test.

In the meantime, here's Kelly, doing her fixed wing thing...

Monday, June 23, 2008

How to learn "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie..."

I was worried it would take a while to learn the phoentic alphabet that aviators use.

This morning I looked it over a few times, and then on my way to work I spelled out loud every billboard, sign, and license plate I saw. It was a fun little game. By the end of the 30 minute commute, I could translate things almost as fast as just saying the regular letters.

And I got really good at saying November Echo X-Ray Tango Echo X-ray India Tango.

By the way, it turns out aviators say "niner" to avoid confusing "nine" with the German word for "no." Who knew!

That's one way to put it

I just encountered my favorite sentence so far in my reading. It's in Principles of Helicopter Flight; the emphasis here is mine:

"The increasing horsepower required [to turn while descending] causes a greater shortfall of power, and the angle of descent becomes steeper. Do take particular note of this because performing steep descending turns close to the surface can result in unintended contact with the terrain."

Indeed. Noted.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

This is your brain on physics

Ok, I'm deep into Chapter 12 (of 26) of Principles of Helicopter Flight, and I believe I can say with some confidence that there is no way all helicopter pilots understand helicopter physics at this level of technicality.

The number and complexity of forces acting on a helicopter and its rotor at any moment are astounding, and they vary dramatically from moment to moment.

I have ceased trying to grasp every concept as I encounter it, and have decided to just plow though the text with the hope that some things will stick and make it easier for me to get it all on the next reading through.

The only other book I can remember ever doing this to me is A Briefer History of Time, Stephen Hawking's and Leonard Mlodinow's exposition on modern physics and cosmology.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Alphabet soup

I've been reading about radio, navigation, and weather in Jeppesen Private Pilot. (I think Jeppesen has a basic helicopter book too, but this is the fixed wing book used in the class I went to.)

The use of acronyms in aviation is so pervasive, it's comical; sometimes when I'm trying to understand them all I just laugh out loud.

For example, when you talk to ATC, you do so with a VHF radio, often on the designated CTAF. Normally you'll be flying VFR, but you might be flying IFR, in which case you'll definitely want to take advantage of navigation aids, such as VORs, TRACONs, ARTCCs, and ASR facilities using ARTS equipment, which can provide an MSAW if requested. In high traffic areas, you'll want to use ATIS and FSS to stay informed, as well as your local A/FD and any relevant NOTAMs. If you do these things, and stick to FAR, chances are you won't ever have to activate your ELT and bring in SAR.

I actually bought a portable VHF radio the other night so I can listen to the planes flying into my nearby airport and begin learning to decode all this gobbledygook.

I'm behind schedule in my reading due to this other new book. The amount of information to cover is increasingly daunting: physics, mechanics, flight controls, navigation, weather, communications equipment and procedures, regulations, and on and on. How do I learn all this and how to fly in just six weeks?

I do have some exciting news, as well as a lot more to write about, but more on all that next time.


Here's the translation, for those who are curious:

When you talk to Air Traffic Control, you do so with a Very High Frequency radio, often on the designated Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.

Normally you'll be flying [under] Visual Flight Rules, but you might be flying [under] Instrument Flight Rules, in which case you'll definitely want to take advantage of navigation aids such as Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range [systems], Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities, Air Route Traffic Control Centers, and Airport Surveillance Radar using Automated Radar Terminal System equipment, which can provide a Minimum Safe Altitude Warning if requested.

In high traffic areas, you'll want to use the Automatic Terminal Information Service and Flight Service Stations to stay informed, as well as your local Airport/Facility Directory and any relevant Notices to Airmen. If you do these things, and stick to Federal Aviation Regulations, chances are you won't ever have to activate your Emergency Location Transmitter and bring in Search and Rescue.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“Flatha pluddum wurfle…”

I’m off to ground school tonight, but first a little anecdote. Today I spoke on the phone with a local helicopter instructor who confirmed that ground school in radio communications is worth my time.

It turns out talking on the radio in a helicopter is one of the surprising challenges. It’s apparently difficult to speak coherently, or even move your mouth much, when your brain is already coordinating a four-limb circus. So much so, the instructor tells me, that the joke with pilots is that the “Push to Talk” button on the radio is really a “Push to Be Stupid” button.

As a drummer of many years, I can relate. Hopefully my experience ordering a drink and negotiating the next song while actively playing the current one will give me an edge when it comes time to speak to air traffic control.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ground school and synchronicity

I don't know too much about Carl Jung, the influential psychologist and philosopher, but as I understand it, his concept of synchronicity essentially means "meaningful coincidence," or a coincidence that actually isn't one. (Uh oh, a paradox.)

This is from Wikipedia's entry on the topic:

"Synchronous events reveal an underlying pattern, a conceptual framework which encompasses, but is larger than, any of the systems which display the is descriptive of a governing dynamic that underlay the whole of human experience and history — social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual....Jung believed that many experiences perceived as coincidence were not merely due to chance but, instead, suggested the manifestation of parallel events or circumstances reflecting this governing dynamic."

Cause and effect are not linear in time, but happen at the same time, or don't even exist. Things are connected through a larger framework that cannot be perceived. It's kind of like Dustin Hoffman's blanket in I [Heart] Huckabees:

By the way, you may have noticed the bowler hat conspicuously placed in the background of that scene (it's in the first few seconds). I suspect that's an homage to Rene' Magritte, a contemporary of Jung who explored philosophy and paradox in his surrealist paintings, which often featured men in bowler hats. Love the Huckabees movie.

Anyway, all that aside, this synchronicity concept is a pretty cool idea.

So yesterday I was looking at this blog to review my latest post, and I just happened to notice that one of Google ads in the lower right corner was for "San Diego Ground School." (Ground school is book learning for student pilots.)

Well, I have to click on that!

It lead me to the web page of a ground school that is nearby and inexpensive. If you've been following my story, you know I'm doing everything I can to learn on the ground to keep my costs down.

Then I saw that the latest session finishes on July 12, the day before I go to Hawaii for flight school. Synchronicity? Is the universe conspiring in my favor??

Negative, Ghostrider. Imagine my disappointment upon realizing that the session already began weeks ago. A cruel joke, Universe. If you'd served me that Google ad on my first post in May, all would be bliss.

But wait...the website says you can drop-in to any individual classes. Now here's the really interesting thing: Since I'm going to learn helicopters, and this class is for airplane pilots, most of it doesn't apply to me. In fact, the only topics (in seven weeks of classes) that are completely relevant to me are radio communications and weather.

So, guess what is covered in the next class, this Wednesday? Radio communications and weather.

Looks like I got that Google ad right on time. Synchronicity? You decide.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moon men, my fears, and commitments redux

I just finished watching the latest episode of the new documentary of the U.S. space program, When We Left Earth. The focus and dedication of everyone in that program are inspirational.

It's astonishing how quickly they advanced their technology and experience, making great leaps forward on every single mission on their relentless march to the moon. It's also amazing the risks they faced, and how courageously they faced those risks.

One of the Apollo astronauts, being interviewed recently for the series, said that on the eve of his launch, he thought his mission had about a one third chance of complete success. He also figured there was a one third chance he wouldn't make it back.

One of the wives of an astronaut on an earlier mission recalled asking the flight director what the odds were that her husband would come home. He told her he thought they had a 50% chance -- and she was relieved because "that was a lot better than I had been thinking."

The episode closed with the words of Gene Kranz, the flight director on the Apollo program who was instrumental in saving the crew of Apollo 13. He said: "The power of space was to raise our aspirations to those things that are possible, if we will commit." (Emphasis his.)

Wow, that resonated with me, particularly given my previous musings on commitment. Here's the man that got us to the moon, and he's saying the single condition of making the impossible possible is commitment.

The truth is, I'm scared of the helicopter. I know I will be scared of the heights. I'm very scared of coming home and having to tell all my family and friends that I couldn't do it, I didn't do it, because I was too afraid (and irrationally afraid, at that.)

But if those guys can send men to the moon, and bring them back when their spacecraft is falling apart all around them, then I can fly a fucking helicopter.

Which brings me to some (more famous) words by flight director Kranz, spoken forty years ago to his team after an onboard explosion caused Apollo 13 to begin rapidly losing oxygen and power:

"Failure is not an option."

Well, that's just another way of saying commitment. Thank you, Gene.

The U.S.A. thinks I'm a pilot

Today I got a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration informing me that Congress and the President have enacted a law that "requires the FAA to make airmen's addresses available to the public...and to notify airmen that they may have their address withheld from industry and others. If you wish to have your address available..."

I'm not an airman (yet), but it's kind of cool to be mistaken for one.

Friday, June 13, 2008

How I know pilots are smart

So far I'm keeping to my goal of one textbook chapter a day, more or less. The technical information is increasingly daunting.

Helicopter physics are are more complex than those of an airplane. The rotor blades function like wings, creating lift, but their relationship with the air is much more complex than airplane wings because they are spinning.

But even before you begin to grasp those processes, you gotta learn to understand the lingo. Here's an example from my text:

"The maximum lift coefficient occurs at the critical (stall) angle, which also has a high drag coefficient. Thus the ratio of lift coefficient to drag coefficient at high angles of attack is very poor and results in grossly inefficient performance. The minimum drag coefficient occurs at zero degree angle of attack (for symmetrical shape) where the lift coefficient is zero."

Got that? I'm not completely convinced that all pilots have to understand all this stuff on a technical level, just like you and I can drive without knowing the physics of our cars' tires on the road.

I'll find out in Hawaii how much I really need to know. Until then, I'm going to try to learn all I can. One of the first things I've learned is that flying things is probably not for dumb people.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wounded birds: The art of crash landing

I looked up some videos on YouTube of emergency landings in Robinson R22s, just to begin acquainting myself with the most difficult part of this endeavor. They look pretty hairy, but the students don't seem fazed.

Below are two examples, views from the ground and from the cockpit. Keep in mind these helicopters have no engine power, they are just falling. But they don't plummet like a stone. The rotor spins in autorotation, like the wing of a maple seed, shown here in the first video.

In the helicopters, at the last second, the pilot trades in this spin for a little lift, and settles softly, more or less.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Learning to fly helicopters in a helicopter is expensive -- about $250/hour. It stands to reason that the more you can learn without the helicopter, the less actual in-helicopter time you will need, and the less money required, to reach pilot certification.

With that in mind, and given the fact that my helicopter school budget is very tight, I've decided to ramp up my book studying.

By my count, I've got 38 days until touchdown in Hawaii. I've got seven chapters left to go in my second reading of Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, and there are 26 chapters in Principles of Helicopter Flight. Together that's 33 chapters.

I'm committing right now to averaging one chapter per day until I leave, which gets me through both books with a five-day buffer.

Believe it or not, this is waaaaaaay more intense, sustained studying than I've ever done in my life. (I slept through high school, and most of college.) Let's see if I can do it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Small commitments, big commitments

As my former girlfriends can testify, commitments can be tough for me.

Today, I booked my plane ticket to Hawaii, and it took some effort, because it was a commitment. It's a "locking in." I don't like being locked in. I've always been more comfortable with broad potential over actual execution.

This thing with the ticket, I realize it's completely irrational. I've known I'm going to Hawaii: I've completed my application, paid for my physical, asked time off work, and put money down on a bungalow in which to live.

Somehow, actually booking the ticket was difficult, and I've resisted it for weeks. It was only the threat of rising prices as the date gets closer that motivated me to get it done.

The thing about commitments is this: They raise fears. Once you're locked in, you start asking yourself bad questions. What if I get there and XYZ goes wrong? What if I can't ABC?? I'll be trapped in horrible circumstances with no way out!! It's kind of like physical claustrophobia on a stretched out time scale.

Of course it makes no sense. As my mother taught me, and perhaps yours did too, there is nothing life gives you that you absolutely can't handle. We all find a way. One of my former girlfriends put it to me this way: "You just have to keep jumping off cliffs, and build your wings on the way down." I always remembered that.

So I have a ticket, and I'm going to Hawaii, where all sorts of disasters could happen. And...uh oh, I still have to book a rental car.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The sound of the future

I live in a military town, and I see helicopters almost every day. Well, I usually hear them first. Whup-whup-whup-whup. I never noticed how many helicopters there are around here. But now when I hear them, I look up, and I get happy. I think about the pilot, and the physics of the machine that I've learned. Cool.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Clean bill

I went to see the doctor to get my FAA exam this morning and came through just fine. It was the standard run down, height, weight, blood pressure, vision, hearing, piss in this cup please and leave it on the shelf.

The doc was awesome, a former pilot himself in at least his seventies, with an office covered in autographed airplane photos from pilots as far back as WWII. It was like a little aviation museum.

He sat in his white coat in his own waiting room and ignored me as I checked in and filled out the forms. Then, "Ok, let's do this," and very matter of factly ran me through the tests as he must have done it hundreds (thousands?) of times before. No small talk.

It was over in a few minutes. As the technician ran the urinalysis test, the doctor and I sat in silence together in the waiting room. I asked him how his day was, and he emerged from quiet reflection to say that after 35 straight years of 80 patients a day, it was now pretty quiet. I paid the bill, shook his hand, and said, "Thanks, Doc." He smiled and said, "Good luck with your flying, it's a lot of fun." And that was it.

BTW, my hearing is apparently exceptional and vision is 20/20, although I noticed one eye wasn't quite as clear on the smallest row of the chart. One thing about getting older is I really appreciate my healthy genes. Thanks, Mom and Dad.