Category Archives: Flight School

2010 Crossville Sonex Gathering

I have been interested in building an airplane ever since getting my pilot’s license. For a long time I considered building the RV-7, but was looking for something less expensive and easier to build.  The Sonex seems to be the perfect fit for me, so I emailed a local Sonex builder and heard about a Sonex fly-in in Crossville, Tennessee.

The fly-in was great. It was wonderful to see all the airplanes and talk to builders about the building process and their flying experiences–especially their experience with the 80hp VW conversion Aerovee engine. Part of what appeals to me about Sonex is this ~$7000 engine, but I have been concerned about not having enough power to tow me and a friend around.  I have heard about saving weight by polishing the aluminum instead of painting it (20-30lbs) and building the tailwheel option instead of the tricycle (~10lbs?).

A whole bunch of Sonex airplanes.

While there, a couple airplanes built by Tom Huebbe and his son caught my eye. They had the most beautifully polished aluminum I could have imagined and the decals looked ridiculously stylish. But most importantly, they are also powered by VW engines–I figure if they can have this much fun, it should be good enough for me. I had been afraid polished aluminum would feel like a compromise, but now it seems like the only way to go.  Be sure to check out their videos–they are every bit as artistic as their airplanes.

Standing in front of a polished Sonex airplane.

Also while there I noticed Aaron Knight’s color-changing Jabiru 3300-powered Sonex. I recognized it from his youtube videos and have since discovered his website.  Check out his videos–my understanding is he wrote the music, I wonder if he plays his own theme song while he flies?

Flight School Day 34

I’m two weeks behind now.

On September 19, 2008 I flew to McMinnville, Tennessee for my check-ride with Bill Barton.  Aaron came along for some last minute preparation and so if I failed something simple he would be able to train me on it some more and I would be able to retake the test.  Apparently a student pilot recently forgot to set his directional gyroscope for the cross-country portion of the check-ride and they ended up so far off course he was lost and unable to complete the cross-country portion without help.

I didn’t think to bring my checkbook to pay the examiner but just before we left Aaron reminded me and I went to the nearest bank ATM to withdraw the $350 fee.  The flight to McMinnville was nice but it became apparent that desire for nice calm winds was not going to happen.  The wind was almost perpendicular to the runway when we landed.

Then I met Bill Barton and we did the oral portion of the test.  He asked a bunch of questions about flying and flight preparation.  I did pretty well but I did learn a few things I was unaware of in the process like how to find the frequency for the Flight Service Station and what frequency to use to contact them if they talk back on a different frequency than the one you contact them on.

For the flying portion of the exam I prepared a really long cross-country flight.  That we were supposed to start out on after takeoff.  In Madison County we have runways 18 and 36 which align nicely with North and South.  McMinnville has 5 and 23 which run North East and South West.  I thought I was taking off North East when I was actually going South West… a mistake I’ve never made before so what better time to make it than on the check-ride.  Because of this I turned opposite of the way I needed to go before I checked my heading and realized the mistake I made.  I didn’t realize this but Aaron was getting very worried until I turned some more to get on course.

Mr. Barton had me indicate when I could see the first checkpoint which was Woodbury.  He also had me point out specific mountains and terrain on the map.  When I pointed out Woodbury he said to pretend we had to make a diversion due to bad weather to Smithville and take us there.  The trick to this was figuring out the course to fly without a precise calculation and by reference to terrain on the map.  I got us there without any problem.  When we arrived the weather report said we again had almost complete crosswind.

I flew downwind and started turning base when I realized my downwind was too close to the runway for me to make the turn all the way to final without some insane banking.  I was also way too high.  So about when I turned final I did a “go-around”.  This time I was farther from the runway when paralleling it on downwind.  Still, when I turned final I noticed I was way too high and performed a slip to lose altitude.  Mr. Barton said, “Good! I was going to ask you to demonstrate a slip anyway.”  That landing turned out well.  This airfield didn’t have much in the way of taxiways so we used the runway to taxi.  We also decided that above the ground I must have a tailwind on final that gets dissipated by the surrounding trees and terrain and doesn’t register on the windsock.  So we tried a flight around the pattern in the other direction and everything turned out better.

He then had me perform stalls with the power off.  And 360 degree steep turns to the left and right.  On one of my turns I was watching for a road and stopped on a different one and only did a 270, so I tried again :-)  He seemed pleased.  Then we did some unusual attitude recovery while I was wearing my “foggles” to prevent me from seeing outside.  They weren’t as wild as some Aaron had given me and I recovered from them.  The air was pretty bumpy during the entire flight and as a result there was a pretty good jolt while I had my eyes closed waiting for him to get the airplane in an unusual attitude… I suspected it was him trying to make things difficult, but he said it was just a gust.

We then flew back to McMinnville and he had me do a short field landing on the thousand foot line which I did.  We then taxied back to the FBO and he said I passed the checkride and am a private pilot.

After I payed him the $350 he took us out to eat.

Flight School Day 33

Today was more practice for the check ride.

We started by practicing a soft-field takeoff where you get the airplane off the ground as early as possible and fly in ground effect until you pick up speed and begin climbing.  We flew the pattern a few times and practiced short field landings where the idea is to get the airplane on the ground as close to after a specified point as possible.  I still come in a little low on final approach, but it was much better today than it has been.

We then practiced flying “under the hood” with only reference to the instruments–this went well and we practiced unusual attitude recoveries as well.

We then performed some power on stalls where you get the airplane at around takeoff speed, apply full throttle, and pull up to simulate a stall on takeoff.  On one of the stall attempts, Aaron cut the throttle and I recovered by immediately pitching the nose down.  He was trying to see if I’d pull back, worsening the situation.

Then we climbed to 4,500 feet and practiced spins.  The first time he had me spin once and recover after two rotations on the same heading.  I came out just about exactly on the right heading.  So we climbed and he told me to count the revolutions until I got to three and then begin recovery.  Around three revolutions the spin stabilizes and it ended up taking about another revolution after I started recovery before the spin stopped.

When we got to the airport we did some more short-field landings and everything turned out really good.

Flight School Day 32

Today was another review for the check ride.  Aaron had me plan a cross-country flight to a local airport and when we got to the second checkpoint he asked me to divert to a different airport to see if I could find it.  The airport was a grass strip that I-65 bends around north of Huntsville at Ardmore.  He said I’m the first person he’s known to find it.

We did a short field landing on the runway which had a nice path down the middle that had been worn in and 2-3 foot grass/weeds on the sides.  So when we took off we practiced a soft field takeoff where you lift the airplane off the ground early and float in ground effect until it’s really going, then you climb out.

I was surprised how close we were to the Saturn V rocket–so close that I was afraid we might be in Huntsville’s airspace, but we were actually quite a way out.

On our way back to Madison County Airport I flew with the view-limiters on so I had to fly only by reference to the instruments.  Aaron put the plane in some unusual attitudes which I was able to recover from successfully.

We practiced short-field landings when we got to the airport.  I had been coming in too low last time–in order to land precisely on a point, you have to aim before the point and float in ground effect until the airplane stalls and touches down where you want.  This means you end up aiming a bit before the actual runway if you want to land right on the numbers.  So in the process, I was probably aiming a bit too far out and coming in low and having to add power to make it to the touchdown point.  This time I was better, but still had to add power a couple times.  Instead of needing to add power at the end I should be needing to slip slightly at the end to lose altitude.

Flight School Day 31

I passed my written test with a 93% on Saturday and so now we are preparing exclusively for the test.

I told Aaron we still haven’t practiced any turning stalls, so that was the first thing we tried.  I was really concerned about getting in a spin from a banked stall but conveniently enough the high wing is the one that falls and it seems to automatically help level the wings.  So there was really no big problem with banked stalls.

Then he showed me accelerated stalls.  The idea is that airplanes stall at a particular angle of attack not a particular speed.  In straight and level flight the speed is fixed, but if you are experiencing more G’s the airplane will be at a higher angle of attack for your speed and stall at a higher speed.  So he had me turn really sharp–close to 90 degrees of bank–while attempting to keep the nose above the horizon.  This led to a higher than usual stall speed but the recovery was still about the same.

Next he decided to teach me how to perform and recover from spins.  This won’t be on the test, but it’s a good thing to know how to do.  Basically we turned off the throttle and pulled back until the airplane started to stall when we completely pushed in one rudder peddle, this causes the plane to roll all the way over on that side and enter a spin.  When we decide to recover we relax the stick and apply opposite rudder to stop the spin and pull up to the horizon.  We did this about 3 times–that many times in such a short period of time is quite dizzying.  We did it with the gyro turned off and when we were done it was rolling uncontrollably about 3-4 times per second which I’m pretty sure is faster than any roll we performed.
Here’s a video of someone else performing the same maneuver in a similar plane:

We finished with short field landing practices.  The landings were all very smooth, but I was consistently quite low on the final approach, so we will probably spend some more time practicing this for the test.

Flight School Day 29

Flight school day 29 was last Friday.

We practiced some more soft-field takeoffs and he was happy with all of them.  Then he showed me short-field takeoff procedure.  For this kind of takeoff, we get the airport to the very beginning of the runway–as close as we can get without the tailwheel going over the edge.  Then we hold the stick for neutral elevators (look out the back to visually verify).  Then we hold full brakes and apply full power.  Once you check all the gauges and everything looks good, let go of the brakes.  Once the airplane starts lifting off, pitch the nose for 60 mph.  This guarantees the most altitude gained in the shortest distance.  Once you have cleared all obstacles pitch for 77mph which guarantees quickest altitude gain.  These takeoffs also went nicely.

After that we practiced short-field landings.  For this he basically picked a spot on the runway that I had to aim for like it was the beginning of a short runway and I had to land a three point landing on that spot.  These landings seemed to work out pretty good and he was really impressed with them.

Then we tried soft-field landings that are basically a three-point landing made as smoothly as possible.  On final we started talking and before I knew it we were low, slow, and crooked.  I managed to straighten out but the touchdown was not very smooth.  We tried again and I was more focused and it worked out so smooth if you were sleeping, it probably wouldn’t wake you.

We also flew out east of the airport to practice some maneuvers.  We started with steep turns to the left and right–I kept the altitude constant and entered and exited the turns right on the correct heading.  Then he had me try a climbing turn to a heading–had I done it perfectly, I would have got to the altitude and completed the turn at the same time.  As it turns out I completed the turn before I was at the right altitude.

Then we tried a stall and it worked out quite nicely.  On my previous stall attempt, my right wing started dropping and I tried to lift it by rolling the airplane left with the ailerons–that only makes it worse.  What happened is the right wing was a little more stalled than the left, so it started dropping–lowering the aileron on the right wing only increases the angle of attack and causes it to fall even quicker… so it’s kindof like your controls get reversed.  I’m not sure what would happen if you just tried to apply opposite commands at that point.  Anyway, the correct method is to keep the airplane level using the rudder pedals because the tail isn’t stalled.

My next reaction last time as soon as the roll started accelerating was to lower the nose and it instantly recovered.  This time I was ready with the rudder pedals and the airplane stalled nice and level and I was able to recover with very little lost altitude.

Aaron seemed really pleased with my performance and said I will need very little preparation for the test.

Flight School Day 28

Flight school 28 was last Wednesday.

I signed up to fly at 10:00am, but forgot about it because my Thursday flight got reshuffled and I decided to go fix an oven in the morning.  But at 10:30 I decided to check the schedule just in case (thinking the flight was in the afternoon).  Anyway, Aaron was forgiving and I showed up at 11:00am instead.  I took him to Subway for lunch to make up for it.

First we practiced soft field takeoffs.  The idea is that the ground may be mushy or gravely and the wheels might sink in.  So as soon as we make sure there is no traffic and taxi onto the runway we apply just enough power so we make it onto the runway and can turn tracking the centerline without needing any brakes but also without slowing down and allowing the plane to sink in.  As soon as we’re lined up we apply full power and hold the stick all the way back.  Normally we would push the stick forward and get the plane up on the main wheels, but not for a soft-field takeoff.

Soon the airplane will start lifting off (along with the stall warning because the angle of attack is close to a stall).  As soon as the plane is off the ground (and thus not being slowed down by the friction of the soft ground) we push the nose down and keep the airplane floating in ground effect until we’re going fast enough to climb out.

When I tried the takeoff I climbed too high and nosed over too slowly, so he helped get the nose down.

Then we practiced wheel landings and they didn’t turn out as well as I hoped.  It was good doing them with him again though–I’ve been pulling up too early and thus losing too much speed before touching down to actually perform a wheel landing.  He helped me keep the nose down a little longer before the flare and get the plane closer to the runway during the flare.

My other problem is the plane will seem to be floating and losing airspeed so I push forward on the stick–this causes the airplane to touch down a little too hard and bounce off the main wheels.  It seems if I just held the stick without pushing forward it would probably work out perfectly.

In addition, he encouraged me not to fly out so far past the end of the runway on downwind–I’ve been trying to go out just the right distance to glide back to the runway with almost no slipping required.  We practiced going to where the runway is about 45 degrees behind the wing before turning base.  This tends to require quite a bit more of a slip to get the plane down but there is little risk of undershooting the runway if the engine quits.

Flight School Days 26 and 27

Flight school day 26 was a week ago.  It had been a while since my last flight and the weather for Thursday (when I was scheduled to fly) looked bad, so I called Wednesday afternoon and scheduled solo time in the airplane.

My goal was to get better at my landings and stalls.  I flew the pattern a few times and despite my efforts, I kept coming in too slow for a wheel landing and ended up doing three point landings with my tail touching quite a bit before the main gear.  Aaron says there is nothing wrong with that, but it feels unnatural and I think I’d prefer for the mains and tailwheel to touch down at almost the same time and believe it will make for a gentler landing.  I paid close attention to my alignment with the runway, both keeping centered over the centerline and headed straight down the runway.  For some reason if I don’t force myself to think about it, I’ll end up over the centerline but pointed off to the side a little.  This is usually corrected immediately on touchdown with quick and strong rudder inputs as the airplane seems to want to make the error more severe.  At first, I felt like I couldn’t even tell when I was pointed wrong, but now it’s more obvious but I need to remind myself to be looking for it.

I flew east of the pattern for a while and practiced some stalls.  I don’t know what the difference was, but it was the first time I tried them solo and they seemed a lot better than normal.  Just after the airplane stalled, I slightly released some back pressure and added power and didn’t lose very much altitude at all.  In the past, I probably lost 100-200 feet per stall.

Just as I expected, the weather was too bad to fly on Thursday.  I booked time with Aaron for Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week instead.

When I got to the airport on Tuesday I found out while Aaron was flying to Moontown with another student, he came upon the wreckage of a plane that had just taken off from Moontown.  He reported the accident and found out he knew at least one of the pilots who died in the accident and was pretty upset about it.  He landed at Moontown and spent much of the rest of the day over there to talk to the FAA/NTSB folks and canceled all his flights for Tuesday and Wednesday.

I was originally planning on using all of Tuesday and Wednesday’s flight time to practice wheel landings with Aaron and was going to wait until Aaron seemed like he wanted to fly again to schedule any more time.  On Wednesday, the flight school called and asked if I wanted to rent it solo and I decided to do so.

There wind was almost all crosswind today, so it was good practice for my takeoffs and landings.  One think I learned was I don’t trim the plane near as much as I should for landing.  Aaron always says to trim for hands-off flying at 70-75mph depending on if we’re doing wheel or 3 point landings.  What ends up happening is I trim a little bit but end up still having to pull back on the stick to get it all the way down to 75mph.  Today I pulled the trim a lot farther back while actually allowing the elevator to go loose in my hand until it really was at 75mph.  The rest of the approach seemed a lot less demanding and while my first few landings were just 3 point, they ended up perfectly straight and pretty smooth.  I wouldn’t mind landing the first landing exactly the same every time.

I then decided to try a wheel landing and it ended up being so smooth I almost didn’t feel the wheels touch.  I kept the tail up until it started to feel hard to keep up and set it down.  One odd thing that never happened until after flying for a month or so is occasionally the tailwheel will get a “shimmy”.  It is attached to the rudder by two trampoline-looking springs and my guess is when I set it down just wrong it starts it oscillating and somehow the speed of the plane feeds the oscillation giving a side-to-side jerking sensation.  The first time it happened Aaron just pushed forward on the stick a little to lessen the pressure on the tailwheel and the vibration stopped.  So I deal with it the same way every time it happens.

Flight School Day 25

This was my last required cross-country flight and the longest one of the ones I have done so far.  I flew from Madison County Airport to Chattanooga to McMinnville, Tennessee and back to Madison County.  The entire flight took 2.1 hours including time at both airports taxiing back after landing.

The flight to Chattanooga was a little bumpy due to wind blowing over all the hills on the way.  I tried to get flight following from Huntsville International as far as I could, but it wasn’t long before they said the terrain was preventing them from getting me on radar.  The flight into Chattanooga was really pretty–I followed a valley right into the city.

The airport was a little busier than Huntsville International has been the times I went there.  I was 4th in line for landing on runway 2.  They had me fly a few miles south of the airfield while waiting for the other planes to land and then come straight in from about 5 miles out.  I heard on the ATIS that a taxiway was closed–I was prepared and brought a map of the airport with me and was able to tell where it was closed.  After landing I asked the tower if they wanted me to turn off at the next taxiway which happened to touch the closed section and they said it would be better to go to the next one.  They eventually had a passenger jet enter at that taxiway and back-taxi down the runway so they would have room to take off.  Ground control gave me instructions back to where the taxiway closed and you had to get on the runway to either back-taxi or make an intersection departure.  I asked tower for an intersection departure and they let me go before the passenger jet.

The flight to McMinnville was nice–there is a huge valley carved out by the river that empties into Lake Guntersville.  It looks like you’re flying off the edge of the world when you get to it.  There was no traffic at all at McMinnville and I did one landing before heading back to Madison County.

All my landings were three-point landings.  I feel like I am a lot more in control of the landings than I was in the past.  I feel like I can sense when the nose is not pointed how I want it and am coordinated enough with the stick and rudder to get it how I want.  So the landings felt nice–just no wheel landings for this flight.

Flight School Day 24

Today was supposed to be my long solo cross-country flight.  It was going to be to Enterprise but Aaron expressed that it would probably not happen.  When I got there the weather in lower Alabama looked like it wasn’t going to cooperate, so we went ahead with the plane I made to fly to Chattanooga and McMinnville (which is where my flying test will be).  We got the wind and everything calculated.  Then I went and preflighted the airplane.  It started to look like fog was cropping up in the valleys towards Chattanooga, but it quickly turned into a line of thunderstorms.  Then we thought of going west, but the weather west was also beginning to deteriorate.

In the end, we decided to put off the cross-country flight and I flew around the pattern and neighboring area.  There were quite a flew scattered clouds to the west and thunderstorms to the East, so I stayed west of the airport.  I did a lot of turns, trying to get more coordinated with the rudder at various speeds.  I tried some ground reference maneuvers and they seemed light years easier than last time, but the wind was also much more relaxed this time.

It suddenly occurred to me the other day that the airplane is trimmed to a certain dot on takeoff for a reason and that has to do with an optimal climb rate that occurs at approximately that trim setting.  So I tried to perform my takeoff climb with as little manual pressure on the elevators as possible while keeping careful watch of my airspeed and it turns out it climbed a lot steeper than I normally do, but at an optimal climb speed.  Normally when I takeoff I feel like I’m in an awkward state of actually pushing forward on the stick to keep from climbing too steep.

I also read in my magazine I got from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association that when your engine fails, if you simply pull all the way back on the trim, the plane will automatically fly at approximately best glide.  He said planes are designed not to stall in that configuration.  I tried it and felt exactly like I was going to stall, so I pulled it very gradually and let the airplane automatically adjust to the change, but still never got where I was automatically flying at best glide.