Inflight Student Pilot Blog
Student Pilot: 25.9 Hours
Up until now, I have been cocooned in the relative safety of my home Flying Cloud airport and the close surrounding practice area. However, it is a big world out there and with my landings continuing to improve it is time to slowly but surely start exploring other airports as I move into the dual cross-country portions of my flight training. The term “cross country” might conjure up thoughts of long flights across mountains and to new and exotic places, but in the world of private pilot flight training a flight is considered a cross country flight if the straight-line distance between the takeoff and landing point is over 50 nautical miles. So instead of cross-country flights to scenic locations like Colorado or Montana, we set our sights on some closer, less scenic local trips to locations like Glencoe Muni Airport (KGYL) and Buffalo Muni Airport (KCFE). These airports are not far enough away from KFCM to meet the true definition of a cross country, but these flights are meant to be the warm-up to the longer cross-country flights and teach me the basics of navigation, flight into non-towered airports, and proper entry and exit of unfamiliar traffic patterns.
Prior to these lessons, my only experience with traffic patterns and takeoff/landings was in an ATC-controlled environment, so it was somewhat eye-opening to see the other side of things at a non-towered airport. Before starting my training, I assumed ATC-controlled airports were busy and stressful, while non-towered airports were casual and calm. My assumptions were correct in some ways, but I did not anticipate the non-towered airports feeling a little like the “wild west” as CFI Drew likes to call it. I quickly realized that with all the procedures and rules that come with ATC controlled airports, those procedures also provide a level of comfort as you know you have a second set of eyes watching for traffic, and generally pilots in the airspace that are more experienced and following strict directions from ATC that have consequences if not followed. In non-towered airports, you have to put more trust in your fellow pilots to communicate effectively and keep operations safe. I was advised to really be on my toes in case “Joe Cowboy” comes barreling into the airport to land while making no radio calls and barely looking for other traffic. Luckily we never encountered anything like this, and I think the vast majority of the aviation community is safe and considerate, but some extra vigilance never hurts just in case you run into Joe Cowboy!
The View of Glencoe Muni Airport (KGYL)
Flights to these non-towered airports were also a good time to introduce a couple of new takeoff and landing techniques that are part of the private pilot curriculum, soft field and short field operations. These techniques are really just slight variations in normal takeoffs and landings. Soft field takeoffs and landings, as you might be able to guess, are used on non-paved runway surfaces such as grass or gravel. The main objective of soft field operations is to protect the nosewheel from collapsing in soft ground and to prevent the plane from getting bogged down in the softer surface. This is accomplished by using 10 degrees of flaps on takeoff to aid lift, and by keeping in substantially more back pressure on the yoke in takeoffs, landings, and taxi to keep the weight off the nosewheel as much as possible. Brakes are also used very sparingly, if at all, in a soft field landing to prevent the weight from shifting forward onto the nosewheel. CFI Drew and I even got to venture to a local grass strip to try out real soft field operations, which was a lot of fun to experience!
Short field takeoffs and landings are used on shorter than normal runways as a way to try to limit takeoff and landing distance to as short as possible in the event you ever find yourself flying into or out of a short runway. Short field takeoffs are designed to make available as much of the runway as possible by positioning the plane at the very start of the runway, and then using a runup to full power while holding the brakes before releasing the brakes to get the plane rolling as fast as possible in as little distance as possible. Short field landings are similar to normal landings with the exception that the approach is typically flown at a steeper angle into the runway and at a slightly slower approach speed of 60kts vs a typical 65kts in a Cessna 172. On the checkride, I will be required to demonstrate a short field landing and be able the land the plane within 200 ft of a pre-selected aiming point. It is my understanding that this is one of the most frequently busted maneuvers on the checkride. Luckily, short field landings came much easier than I anticipated, and by my second one I was consistently hitting my spot. CFI Drew was a little perplexed with how quickly I picked up short field landings when normal landings took a little more time, but that is all just part of training. Some things come easier than others for different people, and there isn’t always a good explanation for it!
After all that practice refining landings and learning to navigate new airports, it was time to do a “real” cross-country that would count towards meeting my required cross-country experience for the logbook. The first flight was from Flying Cloud (KFCM) to St Cloud (KSTC), which clocked in at just over the 50nm threshold. However, before the flight even happened, I had to prepare a Navigation Log before the flight. A navigation log is an old-school way of flight planning and involves using a sectional chart to plan a course and determine the proper magnetic heading to fly the airplane. The navigation log is also used to track waypoints along the route and determine the required fuel and time to destination. The GPS and iPad in the cockpit age have in some ways made the hand calculated paper Navigation Log a relic of the past, as these days pressing a few buttons on a panel-mounted GPS or in an app like Garmin Pilot or Foreflight accomplishes the same task in a fraction of the time. However, like many things in flight training that may seem impractical, actually having to do the calculations on paper does provide a deeper level of understanding for cross-country flight planning. Things like making heading adjustments for winds aloft, magnetic variation, and compass error are all things that might be glossed over if relying solely on GPS navigation. This type of manual planning also introduced me to the dreaded E6B Flight Computer, essentially a slide rule calculator for a pilot that was developed sometime around World War II. It is actually a pretty slick tool once you get the hang of it, but more than once I found myself muttering “that makes no sense” under my breath when trying to use it as it is far from the most intuitive tool out there.
After completing the Navigation Log, we set out for KSTC from KFCM. On the trip there, I used the Navigation Log and paper sectional chart to track time between pre-selected ground reference waypoints along the way, confirming I was on the proper course and that my time in route was matching my pre-calculated flight plan. The form of navigation is typically referred to as “dead reckoning”, and will be a checkride skill I’ll need to demonstrate. After a quick landing and takeoff, we headed back to KFCM to complete the trip, only this time CFI Drew had another navigation twist for me to try. On the way home I solely relied on “pilotage” navigation, which is using visual landmarks on the ground to determine the location and proper course. This was accomplished by using the paper sectional chart to identify landmarks along the way in an effort to navigate me home without the aid of any GPS, iPad, or pre-calculated flight plan. We picked a good day to practice pilotage as visibility was good enough at ~5 miles, but not so good that you could see way out into the horizon, which made it a little more challenging as I couldn’t see the airport from 20+ miles out and just fly towards it. I actually enjoyed the challenge versus just hitting the “direct to” button on the GPS, and luckily my pilotage kept us pretty close to the direct course from KSTC back to KFCM.
CFI Drew and I did another cross-country flight the next lesson to untowered Willmar Muni (KBDH), again completing a nav log prior to flight and using pilotage and dead reckoning for navigation. It was a good step closer to my PPL and gave me the confidence that once I do earn my PPL, I’ll be able to navigate on cross-country flights. Hopefully, some of those flights will be to scenic far-off locations, but for now, even St. Cloud and Willmar, MN looked pretty good to me. They were also a nice change of pace from lessons spent almost exclusively in the traffic pattern working on landings and takeoffs!
Student Pilot Tip of the Week: On Break This Week
This post got a little long, so I’ll spare more reading and pick the student pilot tip of the week back up with the next post!
That does it for blog post #6 of the Inflight Student Pilot Blog. Until next time, live life in the left seat!
Disclaimer: This is a student pilot blog. While I strive for accuracy when communicating concepts or elements from my training, this blog should never be relied on as being 100% accurate. My experience as a student pilot may also differ from what others experience. Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect opinions of Inflight Pilot Training.