Facing Fears

This has been a week of facing fears and overcoming them.

The first fear: I’m afraid of being alone in an airplane. Suppose the engine makes a funny noise and I don’t know what to do? Suppose I get lost out there [again]? Suppose I can’t land the airplane? Suppose I can’t understand the controller at the airport (there’s one the pilots call “marble-mouth”)?

So, Gizmo and I completed a local flight on our own. A very local flight – we never left the pattern. I figured since the pattern is some of the most dangerous flying involving the most use of piloting skills and the most strain on an airplane and the most talking to the controllers it was the best place to spend an hour on my own to get over the fear.

It was a good thing I did. I’m rusty on pattern work. The first approach was so terrible it was a go-around at 200 feet. The next was rough to say the least, but by the end of an hour I was much more confident and had learned a few things about the plane one can only get from wrestling with it in the absence of an instructor. I had some close calls. At one point a plane cleared for 31L landed on 31R (where I was landing) when I was on final, but the controllers were calm and cool and ordered me to do a go around and then turned me crosswind early and lined me up again.

As always seems to happen when I fly solo, something went wrong. I was taking off from another touch and go when I noticed my oil pressure was all the way to the right in the red. Immediately I got on the radio and requested a full stop on 31L (aka “the big one” where all the full stop landings happen). The tower told me to standby for sequencing. A slew of other planes had made similar requests and I was instructed to extend my downwind until they had everyone lined up.

This is a regret of mine now that I understand how serious a high oil pressure reading can be, but I didn’t tell the tower about it because I really don’t want to be known as the girl that ALWAYS needs help up there (I’m pretty sure I am known as “she’s lost again” to a few incredibly helpful ATC personnel).

When my downwind leg was extended to the point I couldn’t see the airport anymore behind me I began picking out good fields for emergency landings. I could see PDX and all of downtown Portland when they finally called my base leg.

I landed just fine incident free, taxied to the flight school parking lot and squawked the high oil pressure reading. It was fairly simple. The valve needed an adjustment so that pressure would not build up again. Whew!

Second fear: flying with clouds. I know. I live in Oregon. At some point I have GOT to get comfortable with the idea of flying when it is raining/cloudy but I wasn’t there yet – much to the chagrin of my former military captain flight instructor who could be dropped in a forest with a chicken bone, fashion a compass before using it for nourishment and finding his way home. He fears nothing and he never gets lost. Ever.

So, for the next solo flight Gizmo and I got out there on a day with overcast skies, steady precipitation and in some places pretty tough visibility and deliberately flew away from the airport for an hour and a half. We practiced S-turns and turns around a point and turns around a field. We flew up valleys and over lakes. We followed creeks. We stayed out there until the terror subsided into joy.

The final fear: admitting out loud I am not going to make the May 31 deadline to get my pilot’s license. For a year now I’ve been operating under this notion. I’ve had a scholarship that depends upon my finishing on this date. I’ve put other things in my life on hold until this deadline passes. I’ve had a whirlwind year – a cross-country move, a new job, a hospitalized husband, and a month of quarantine and still made it all the way to the finish line only to find I am just a tad short. And yes, it’s devastating.

I am close. So close I can taste it. Only a few weeks away in all likelihood, but getting there in the next few days? No. It’s just too much and I am not ready. I am still trying to understand some concepts that I am certain will be on the oral test. This weekend I have a wedding anniversary to celebrate and there is no way I’m going to be ready for, schedule and do a progress check and get a DPE lined up on a holiday weekend.

Now, if I could just get my puppy to face her fear of skateboards…

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It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s unbridled jackassery

Hi again!

I’ve had two memorable flights since my last post. One for all the right reasons, the other for all the wrong ones.

First the good one. I flew to the coast for the very first time as a pilot. It was beautiful! Have a look:

Now for the bad one. My lesson today involved practicing my instrument skills with the hood on. After a while my instructor told me to take the hood off, figure out where I was and navigate back to my home airport.

I began the 5 Cs of lost procedures (climb, circle, conserve, communicate, confess) and just after I pulled back my power to conserve my fuel and consulted my sectional something whizzed past my windshield.

“What…was that a bird?” I asked.

A split second later there was another. Less than 100 feet away a man in skydiving goggles dropped from the top of my windshield to the bottom.

I looked out my side window. Yup, a group on skydivers below…and above still?

CFI #5 grabbed the controls and turned the plane on it’s side. We both wildly searched the sky above us.

Nothing.

No plane. No skydivers. Just blue sky as far as the eye could see.

It was eerie. There was no radio call. There were no NOTAMS that day for it. Not a word. Not a hint that people would be dropping out of the sky above us. And just for good measure I have to add: who drops parachute jumpers where two Victor airways intersect without taking a few seconds to clear with ATC that there aren’t other planes in the area?!

It did, however, help me locate my position on the sectional.

Eureka! We must be where that little parachute icon is located!

So if you are a pilot out there and you find yourself in the vicinity of Molina, OR (a few NM SE of the class D Aurora State airport) head’s up: there is an organization called Skydive Oregon that I have learned is begrudgingly known in the area for dropping skydivers without clearing the airspace, making a radio call, or giving a damn about anyone else in the sky. I believe the official aviation vocabulary for this type of behavior is jackassery.

And if you are thinking of jumping with Skydive Oregon, you might want to reconsider unless the idea of being sliced in two by a propeller is part of your skydiving fantasy.

All by myself…sort of

I did it!

I got back in the plane by myself (with Gizmo) and flew to Corvallis and then to Scappoose and then to Hillsboro, completing my FAA required solo time for cross-country flying. From this day forward I never have to venture more than a few miles from my home airport BY MYSELF again!

But here’s the thing: what got me in the plane this time was realizing that I wasn’t alone.

Over the course of the past year and a half of flight training I have picked up a small army of supporters along the way. First it was just a retired pilot that agreed to take me up a few times in exchange for a pool cue rack I was selling. Then I was invited to the pilots’ standing breakfast every Saturday morning at the Blue Hangar Cafe. It wasn’t long before friends and family jumped on board. Then I met the 99s. Supporters began commenting on my blog. Once my first solo flight was announced to the office I found other aviators and sailors and navigators in the woodwork at my workplace. Even my non-aviation minded friends ask how I’m doing and encourage me to keep at it.

I thought it was appropriate, since I was thinking of all of you, for you to come with me on this second cross-country solo. So sit back while I spin my yarn and enjoy the pictures.

Yesterday morning I felt nervous as usual as I got in the car to drive up to the airport. I turned on the radio,

“Good morning Portland, beautiful weather today on this 79th anniversary of the Hindenburg…”

Channel change. It was Tom Petty.

“…and I’m free! Free falling!…”

You’ve got to be kidding me. Channel change.

Classical radio was the only safe channel. So, it was Schubert all the way to the airport. When my brain wandered and began to think of all that could go wrong I heard Patty’s voice, my 99s scholarship mentor, in my head, “Whatever happens, you will find that your training will take over.”

I got to the plane, strapped Gizmo in and performed my preflight only calling my CFI over twice to double check why my radio wouldn’t work and why the flap rod didn’t move freely.

I took my time. I added oil to the engine even thought it had the minimum required. I ordered full tanks of gas even though I wouldn’t need all of it. I had the windshield cleaned. I ate a granola bar. When I felt good and ready, the 115 lbs me lugged the 1,405 lbs airplane down to the end of the row by myself. A sight that did indeed turn heads.

My 1,405 lbs bird.

At Colins’ recommendation I said all of my checklists out loud. I gave Gizmo the preflight briefing and instructed him in the requirement of the shoulder harness and the importance of a sterile cockpit during takeoff and landing.

Up and away we went into the clear blue sky, 700 feet per minute until we reached 3,000 feet. I didn’t request flight following this time, but decided to listen to each airport as I passed along the way.

As I approached the southern edge of the West Practice Area, I made a radio call that I was over the Newberg VOR. A familiar voice came back “sounds like you’re kicking ass and taking names.” It was CFI #5 out with another student.

Over the ridge, out of the [somewhat] familiar, and then boom, there it was – the Willamette Valley stretching onward as far as the eye could see. My first checkpoint was a particular crook in the Willamette River.

This particular crook in the Willamette River was my checkpoint.

I found all of my checkpoints along the way, and even some other stuff I saw on the map I decided to look for just for fun. There were airports everywhere – Newberg, McMinnville, Salem, Independence. Cross country solo #2 was going swimmingly well.

Bird’s eye view of Independence’s airport.

In no time at all I was crossing East of the large hills just North of Corvallis. Just over those hills was Beaver Stadium (Oregon State U’s unmistakable stadium with a beaver painted on the field) and just past that would be the airport.

Corvallis, Oregon State University and Beaver Stadium.

I didn’t spot the stadium at first, but fortunately I had once interviewed for a job at OSU and was familiar with the town and campus. I found the university, and I knew from my airport diagram that the airport was 4 miles SW of the town, so that’s where I headed. It took a minute, but eventually I spotted the airport.

The weather reported variable winds at 9 knots, mostly from the North. I set up for runway 35, called my turns and then about 30 feet off of the runway decided I didn’t like any of what was happening. The glide path would have worked but I couldn’t get the nose to line up with the runway and I was all over the place with my ailerons. Nope, it’s a go-around.

I hadn’t done a go-around in a while. I remembered the carb heat and the throttle go in, I forgot not to pick up all three notches of flaps at once and not before my airspeed picked up, so instead of climbing out I coasted just a bit lower and lower to the runway I didn’t want to land on. I caught what I had done the minute I did it and then had that panic moment when I heard Lee, my very first CFI’s voice “nothing happens fast in an airplane.” Right. Just hold it steady, it will climb.

Sure enough it did. I decided the winds were just a bit too much for me to try again and headed back out over the little town.

Ok, in two minutes I should see the airport in Independence, right when the Willamette River meanders over almost to the town. Two minutes came and went. I could still see Corvallis. I wasn’t even past the hills. Twelve minutes passed and I believed I was over Independence, only this town didn’t have an airport. The river turned across the valley just as it was supposed to, but no airport to be found.

I trekked on, I would see Salem to my right, it’s hard to miss, it’s a large city.

Much later than expected, I saw a large city to my right. Salem is Delta airspace and I was able to tune into their tower frequency. Only this time I couldn’t spot the airport in Salem either.

I studied the sectional, suddenly there were lots of features I didn’t recall seeing before. The sectional had multiple places where the river split, before I only knew of one on my route. I looked out the window and saw a large bridge crossing over the Willamette, but no such bridge on my sectional.

I had been flying for about 20 minutes, up ahead of me must be McMinnville, maybe Newberg? That large road below me must be I-5…but where are my checkpoints?

Baby bird. Lost. Again. Wishing I had Fred Noonan on board.


Then it happened all over again. Out of nowhere came the nausea, the lightheadedness, and the shaking. Only this time I was certain I was physically fine. This time I understood it better. This was panic.

At that moment I heard Monica, one of my Texas 99s in my head who admitted to experiencing the exact same thing on a few of her solo flights, “just remember, you’ve got a map and you’ve got a radio.”

Right. I looked at the map, got the frequency for the local FSS and tuned it in. A friendly man answered and asked how he could help. I explained I was a student pilot on a solo flight and I needed some help navigating.

You guys, he was amazing. He spoke to me calmly and checked in often. I’m certain he was a pilot because a number of the things he said to me gave me the distinct impression he knew exactly what I was going through.

He had me squawk 7700 (gulp!) because getting lost is an emergency. He contacted Portland Approach and said they showed me about a mile SW of Independence.

What?! How?! I was never supposed to be West of Independence! How has twenty-five minutes of flight not gotten me past a checkpoint I was supposed to pass five minutes into the flight?!

Then he gave me an option, “if you want I’ll stay with you and we’ll talk it out until you know where you are again or I could pass you to Portland Approach and they will guide you back on track.”

I opted for Portland Approach figuring he was just being nice to offer to stay with me. Portland Approach had a controller that was just as friendly and understanding. I admitted I was lost and he gave me a new transponder code to squawk and asked me to ident. Then he gave me a heading, asked a few things about my aircraft and affirmed that I was doing just fine.

Inside I was conflicted. On the one hand I was relieved to be in the hands of capable people that would hold my hand until I knew where I was again – the panic was gone. On the other hand I felt like a complete failure. Twice now I had ventured out on my own and twice I had gotten lost and bothered otherwise very busy controllers in Charlie airspace with my inability to navigate.

Then I heard it. Another of the pilots on the same frequency was repeating back an instruction the controller had given him and ended it with “…maintain 5,000, great job on the student pilot.”

That was for me. He just told me I was doing great.

I’m not alone up here. I’ve just added one more to my small army of supporters and I don’t even know his name.

The controller took me right back into the West Practice Area, flew me straight over KHIO (my home airport) and then, when I confirmed I had KSPB in sight, cleared me to change the frequency.

Can you spot KSPB? I can!

 

I took this picture for my folks, I knew they’d love the aerial view of the boats.

I came into Scappoose for a touch and go on 33, announcing each of my turns to the local traffic. Again, I didn’t like the landing and aborted it but this time I made quite literal the touching and going. I tip-toed the main wheels down, never touched the nose gear to the runway and jumped back up into the sky. On my way up a radio call came from the FBO “is there any traffic in the area, please report?”

[click] “Cessna 521 is on the upwind for 33.”

“Oh good! A man called over here from McMinnville FSS asking about you, how you doing up there?”

Pilots. They really are the coolest people.

On my way back over the ridge between KSPB and KHIO I called him up, assured him I was doing great and thanked him for being wonderful.

Can you spot KHIO? Me neither, but I know it should be on the left-hand side of this picture.

I used Rob’s trick of holding up my right hand when the tower cleared me to make right traffic for 31 Left (why can’t we just call it “the big runway” to reduce confusion?).

The last landing was just as botched as the first two. Some days you’ve got it, some days you don’t. I put it down hard. Hard enough to bounce a few times. Remembering as I did Rob’s comment that it is supposed to be messy now while I’m still new at this. Pretty landings will come later, right now just put it on the ground safely.

Snapped this picture of KHIO as I was flying over on my pass from Corvallis to Scappoose.

I taxied back in and the minute I started to beat myself up about getting lost flying a straight shot from South to North up a valley with a major freeway beneath me the whole time, I heard Ron’s voice (even though I’ve never actually heard it) when he told me to stop being so hard on myself. It’s way too soon in the game to expect 100% proficiency in navigating unfamiliar territory. I took a lot of people on that flight with me and all of them probably have similar stories worthy of a kick in the pants or two.

Finally, to all of you, those I named in this article, and the many many many many others that have been voices of support and encouragement along the way, thank you for seeing to it that I never fly alone.