Flight training has really kicked off and flying airplanes is many times much harder than I first thought it would be. The workload is high, the stress level is high and me along with my class mates are set under a lot of pressure from both instructors and ourselves to perform in our lessons and to learn to be proficient pilots. Some flights work out better than others. Sometimes it feels like you are mastering every turn and maneuver, and then you have those days when you land discouraged and frustrated over how poorly you thought it went.
Training is somewhat like putting a puzzle together. There are a lot of different pieces and parts of a flight period and it is like your instructor first gives you one piece of the puzzle. You take it, study it, and when you are familiar with how it might fit with the rest of the pieces you already have, you put it down on the table. Then you are given a new piece, and you study it and figure out how this one fits. Eventually there are several pieces that lay there and all of a sudden you are able to manage most of the flight on your own.
The first lesson was to taxi (“taxi” is the aviation term for driving the aircraft around on the ground) the aircraft to the runway are, go through all the startup checklists, communicating with ATC (air traffic controller), and taxi back to our hangar. The next lesson we actually took off (after doing all the things we learned in lesson 1) and started practicing some basic maneuvers. After that we practiced stalls, after that emergencies, after that low altitude maneuvers and so forth until the instructor told me that now since I can do everything, I will now be the one who controls the aircraft from startup to shutdown.
For a few weeks now I have been responsible for starting, communicating over the radio, taxi, checklists, takeoff, flying out to our designated practice area, maneuvering, navigating, following directions from ATC if given, flying back to the airport, entering the airport pattern, fly the appropriate approach for landing, land (this part the instructor sometimes needs to jump in to help me out still), taxi back to the hangar, and finally shut the aircraft down.
At this point in training it is time I learn judgement and how to make decisions and solve problems when I run into them. Sometimes when I ask my instructor about something he thinks I should know, he just looks at me with a facial expression like saying: “are you talking to me?” Then he shrugs his shoulders and looks out the windshield and leaves it up to me to decide what to do next. (Of course, if I was about to screw something up and jeopardizing our or someone else’s safety he would jump in and take over the controls of the aircraft.)
Something else that one also have to get used to is the inconsistency of weather conditions. Cool mornings often provide calm winds and very stable air with little turbulence. As the day goes on and the surface of the earth warms up, the air close to the ground also gets warmer and wants to rise. This stirs the air up and cause it to move in different directions. When I say different directions it does not just mean direction on the horizontal plane, but also on the vertical. This becomes very tricky to maneuver in when it is expected of you to hold a specific altitude within a marginal tolerance.
One bad tendency I had in the beginning of training my instructor has pushed me to change (not sure if it is completely gone now though) is to not paying much attention to the altitude indicator and not being so resolute to adjust it when I notice I am too high or too low. During a lesson a couple weeks ago now I climbed into the cockpit of the Cessna 172R that we were flying that day with the mindset that today I was for sure gonna keep an extra eye on those instruments to not let my altitude run amok. I also had practiced (with my instructor) to be more distinct in my movement of the throttle: add power to climb and reduce throttle to descend.
Unfortunately, it was early afternoon when we set out and soon after the wheels no longer made contact with the ground I felt how the wind tried to pull the aircraft in jerky movements off my course and altitude. While communicating with the tower, navigating, and going through my checklists, I did my best to monitor my instruments. At straight and level cruise I constantly had to change the configuration of the airplane to correct for being off from where I wanted to be. Finding I am low… more power and pitch up. Anticipate the level-off… throttle out and pitch to level. A little high… reduce throttle and pitch down, but not too much to avoid getting low again… The story went on for the next hour and a half of the flight, through the maneuvers and the approach for landing.
Pulling the aircraft back to where it was supposed to be parked I was mentally exhausted from focusing, nervousness, and constantly having to adjust for the situation at hand. After getting the paperwork ready, I met with my instructor in his office. Knowing that the flight did not go very smoothly and some of my maneuvers surely required some more practice from my part, I was ready to be coached. And yes, he did have a thing or two to say about my airmanship, coordination and maneuvering as can be expected from a newbie like myself. But what he really wished for me to get out of this flight was what I did well: “Today, Alfred, YOU FLEW that aircraft”
He explained to me that those days are really nice when the air is smooth and you can trim out the controls so that you do not even need to touch them to make keep the aircraft fly straight and level. However, when conditions are not so favorable it is required that the pilot change the power, rudder, ailerons and elevators to make the aircraft do what the pilot wants it to do. That is piloting and that is what it is to actually FLY the aircraft. The maneuvers were not so great, but my instructor said he could tell that I worked those controls for the current situation and made the aircraft obey.
It was a challenge for sure, but so awesome to see how one improves. A month earlier I had no idea how to fly, and this day I had an experienced pilot tell me that I actually did. I have still a lot to learn, but must take one step at the time. This time I took control of altitude, soon I must nail the landings… and in a couple weeks I will do my first solo flight. Then I will actually fly the aircraft on my own from start to finish… with no instructor in the cockpit to help me out if I’m in trouble. 🙂