Tag Archives: ground school

Are we there yet?

Not including a few solo jaunts off to Capital City airport, I have 5 true Cross Country flights.

  1. A dual cross country from Carlisle to Martinsburg, VA.  My first so called navigational experience.
  2. A dual cross country from Carlisle to Reading, PA.  My night cross country.
  3. A solo cross country from Carlisle to Williamsport, PA.  My first 50NM+ solo cross country.
  4. A solo cross country from Carlisle to University Park, PA.  A “time builder” 50NM+ solo cross country.
  5. A solo cross country from Carlisle to University Park, PA, to Lancaster, PA,.  My long cross country.

In preparation for the dual cross countries, I had ground school coursework on flight planning as well as a 2 hour 1:1 session with my CFI. 1 hour of good instruction. 1 hour of me just running my mouth about everything else.

During these sessions the focus is on good route planning. Considerations are for terrain, airspace, navigational aids (e.g. VOR’s, prominent landmarks), backup airports, P-40!, winds, weather, and available runways.

Even though I was strictly VFR, I always tried to fly with reference to at least one radio NavAid. In that way, even if I had an issue with finding an expected visual reference, I had a “connection” to a known spot and could at least get to it and get reset. Of course, there was always the GPS but as my CFI would say…”ya never can trust those things…” Or at least the brightness knob which could somehow get turned to dim and stay there during the flight.

8-12 miles max between visual checkpoints.  8 miles was my minimum visibility for flight so, theoretically, I should always be able to “see” the next point. And, that seemed to be a good distance for managing checkpoint timings, calculating groundspeed, and adjusting ETA.

I also learned to fill out a navigation log with everything but the winds and photocopy it. This was a HUGE time saver. That way, on the day of the flight you just need to fill in the up to date wind information and calculate your headings, GS, fuel burn, and ETA . Well, that part is simple . The huge time saver comes when that flight you just filled out gets weathered out and you have to go through the same process 9 more times until the weather cooperates!

So with navigation log in hand, I’m off on the dual cross country flights. Navigationally, the first one was a bit of a disaster. I was task saturated from just flying and communicating. Trying to manage a precise location on a poorly folded sectional map with a penciled in set of checkpoints, while also reading numbers in the handwriting script the quality of which a 2nd grader would scoff at is next to impossible while also trying to hold a heading and altitude in an aircraft traversing the ground at 106 knots (or at least that was what was originally calculated!)

So, lessons learned:

  1. Binder clips are your friend. Get that sectional chart folded exactly how you want it before the flight.  Make sure it will fit on your kneeboard properly and then clip that thing in place. 3 clips minimum.
  2. While that thing is on your kneeboard, you won’t be able to see your navigation log (2 kneeboards???) So, when it comes time to update a timing, you’re out of space. Not easy to shuffle paperwork in a 172. It’s a bit goofy but along with binder clips, Post It notes can be your friend. Put everything you can on that sectional to minimize the back and forth.
  3. A C-172 has an analog clock in it.  Now, that’s nice and “classic” but it sucks for leg timing. A digital wristwatch is helpful but it would probably be better to have a timer within easy reach.
  4. You’re paying your CFI…as part of the lesson, feel free to use them as a storage facility for a reasonable amount of this material. Reasonable must be stressed though lest they decide to test you out on distractions by dropping a chart at your feet and then pulling the engine while you go reaching for it.

Handwriting…I’ve got a terminal case of bad handwriting.  The only thing for that is technology. Printed flight plans from iflightplanner.com or on the iPad with ForeFlight are MUCH more readable and arguably in my case safer.

In preparation for my solo cross country, I had to cover lost procedures and diversions. I knew I was going to get overloaded on that one as well but I definitely tried to prepare for everything. While I didn’t get “lost”, I was NOT happy with my ability to get myself to the “found” place including the calculation of time / distance.

For diversions, on a sectional chart, from a known position, it is not hard to quickly estimate a course and distance with a pocket ruler.

Get a general idea of the course. Measure the distance right off the scale.  Then, without changing the angle of the ruler, move it towards the compass rose of a VOR.  You can estimate your magnetic heading from there.

So, you’ve got a course, and a distance. HOW LONG UNTIL YOU GET THERE?

And that’s where I would begin the mental lock up. If you’ve got the GPS on you’ve got a groundspeed but we all know how unreliable at least mine is. So, you’ve hopefully been taking your leg times between checkpoints and calculating your groundspeed, right? RIGHT?

I already said I barely had room for the sectional chart and navigation log.  Now I need to manage either of these things as well?

Even if I could find a place for it…not going to be able to use it efficiently.

Slightly better but still…BULKY.

There are some rule of thumb estimates, but I like to be a little more precise than that. While I haven’t used it yet, I’ve come up with what I hope will be a useful tool.


Fits right on the kneeboard. Won’t always have the exact information but should have enough to make a PTS level estimate.

Confession: On my Williamsport trip I used the sectional chart and the navigation log as faithfully as possible. I took some leg times, tried to calculate my groundspeed and updated my ETA. But, of course, the GPS was working fine, I was following a major river the whole way, AND I had ForeFlight running on the iPad with the exact same flight plan loaded….which, incidentally was automatically calculating my leg times, my groundspeed and updating my ETA…which allowed me to keep my eyes outside.

On my subsequent trips, the iPad got attached to the yoke via my Christmas gift and, while there was always the paper and GPS backup, it became my primary inside navigation tool (I still did update the paperlog after each leg with the new groundspeed and ETA!). Is that a bad thing? I think you should always have a backup AND be able to do it the old fashioned way but realistically, if technology is there to help you fly and keep your eyes in the sky, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?

On a checkride, I’m pretty sure the only thing I’ll be able to use is the charts and timer so I’ve got some practice ahead of me.  I’m definitely up for the challenge but also happy I took some of the time to work out a good balance between straight up pilotage and using all available resources to ensure a good outcome for the flight.


Milestone: Ground School

After 12 weeks of group study, none of which, incidentally, was ever cancelled due to low ceilings, poor visibility, or weather, I am now formally finished with Ground School. Logbook is endorsed.  Now just a matter of scheduling the exam within the next 60 days. 

Advice was to do a quick refresh on any trouble areas and schedule the exam as quickly as possible. Sounds like a plan…until it isn’t.

2 “local” exam centers. Exams are given mornings Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Weekdays are pretty much out although that is negotiable which leaves Saturday.

Nope…can’t do Saturday mornings for a few weeks…goin’ flyin!

Once the exam is out of the way, education most definitely continues.

FAASafety.gov is where I’ve been lately.  Living in southern PA a lot of our flights can come close or into the DC SFRA. That training is essentially mandatory unless of course we would like a Blackhawk escort to the Gettysburg airport for some friendly conversation.

Already scheduled for my “post graduate” work:

Takeoff and Landing Hazard Avoidance — New Castle DE

VFR/IFR Flight Planning and Preflight Preparation — Medford, NJ

Key point…these are both out of town…hmm, how to get there???


Flight 7 – Back to Basics

NOTE: My apologies if anyone got email bombed by the frequent updates to this post. WordPress and I have been not getting along today.

Through a combination of personal commitments and freakishly uncooperative weather during this freakishly UnSpring we’ve been having, when I finally got back in the air last Sunday my logbook had a 1 month gap in it.  That was NOT the plan. Now, I did get some simulator time in during one of the weather groundings but I am now officially maxed out in terms of what can be applied as flight hours towards my practical exam qualification. There’s still a lot that can be learned in a simulator and the fact that they have a pause button is invaluable but I’ve flown the computer for decades.  The plane is where I need to be. As seems to be the common student strategy, I signed up for 2 lessons each weekend. The hope is always to get both in but the expectation is that only one will happen. So far, my experience has been that NEVER did I get both lessons in. This weekend was no different. Saturday sky was clear but winds were 18 gusting to 30 knots. Better day to fly a kite than attempt to fly an airplane. My instructor told me to study for the FAA knowledge exam instead. Aside from my book study course, this is my go to resource for test questions in a test environment. It still has quirks but I feel like it is consistent with how the actual knowledge exam will go. I scored a 91% this time. It’s not flying but I do feel like I accomplished something. Sunday…

Still there…

Sky was still clear and yes, the wind was better but most definitely still there.  Up around 15 knots and generally in line with the runway.

My instructor really thought we wouldn’t be flying but she must have saw the look in my eyes. Now I know she would never go up if it weren’t safe and there’s no way in the world anything I would say or do which would change her mind if it wasn’t. From my perspective though I basically shot these (well there were 2 but WordPress is fighting me on adding one of them) models out the window.

Well, it wasn’t that bad and I am definitely learning the lesson that it is better to decide to be on the ground and regret not being in the air than to decide to fly and regret not being on the ground.


From the last lesson’s notes, this flight would be either:

1) Pattern work – If Calm

2) Emergency Procedures – If Not

Door number 2 it is.

While there are a number of “emergency” situations that can occur during a flight the main, and most serious one, is powerplant failure. I say it that way to differentiate from a stall. Stalls are for wings.  I suppose the engine could stall but no need to mince words in flight.

Powerplant failure, once realized, has a few key steps. ABCDE


For airspeed we’ll use 65 KNOTS but the rest is about the same. I did have a open question about the airspeed though. I fully understand the best glide speed as the speed which ensures the most time in the air based on flight characteristics and drag.  My question is with respect to attaining that airspeed. I believe (have to re-clarify) I was told to hold attitude level until the airspeed is reached and then lower nose to maintain that airspeed and trim for hands off. If I was at say, 110 knots when it happened, I would be more inclined to reach the airspeed by climbing…why not get as much altitude as you can with the energy you have???

Briefing was complete so off for pre-flight. Upon grabbing the airplane documents I took the opportunity to take a picture of the W&B sheet specific to my plane.  After the knowledge exam we’ll eventually be doing cross country flight planning and it’s good to have that in advance (and available for the myriad of apps which will assist).

I went through the pre-flight thoroughly but quickly.  I guess I am just getting the process down better.  Not nearly as much back and forth..just a nice flow around the plane. It gave me a few minutes to get settled into the seat before my instructor showed up.

Time to actually “see” the instrument panel.

I mentioned it to my instructor that it was nice to actually just sit there in the quiet, calm and get oriented. Once that engine is on, everything is on warp speed. So to is that Hobbs meter and, well, time is money.

Because of the winds I was not going to do the takeoff. 😦 I held on to the controls for feel but she was flying the plane. Winds were not too bad on the run though so I think I could have managed it.

Back to Basics

Since it had been nearly a month we spent the first part of the flight going over the basics again. Afterwards…she said there was about 5 minutes of rust and then she saw it all click back in for me. Phew. Can’t say how happy I was to hear about that. She also said we would do some of these basics on EVERY flight (particularly stalls and slow flight).

We worked on steep turns which were pretty uneventful. In both those and in slow flight it seems one can still never have enough right rudder. 45 degree banks in the next flight. I was definitely past the 30 degree mark for the 360’s but we didn’t go for the full bank yet.

Foggles…a little bit of that each flight just to keep proficient. She warned me in advance to let her know if I started to get sick. Huh? I guess I didn’t really notice the bumps until that point. The first 30 seconds under the hood definitely churned things up but never to the point of nausea. I did say that if I had those glasses on and she was at the controls it would have been a totally different story.

Simulated Powerplant Failure

With the basics out of the way we went through the emergency procedure.

As part of the briefing we discussed appropriate landing spots.  Roads are actually NOT a good choice. Being in the land of the Eisenhower Interstate System I believed the whole design plan of one mile in five being made straight to facilitate aircraft domestic wartime operations.

MYTH: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/00mayjun/onemileinfive.cfm

So, aside from Interstates we’ve got a LOT of fields.

Green fields over brown fields.  Brown fields could be recently plowed and they don’t accept aircraft very nicely.

If it’s got corn…go with the rows.

Short of that…the more unobstructed space you’ve got the better.

Up in the air she announced we were beginning the procedure. I got the plane to 65 knots around 4500 feet. She asked me then to look out and find a suitable place to land. FIELDS EVERYWHERE. Lots of brown right now.  But then I look around and say matter of factly “well there is an airport right there”. Not sure if that was a test or just a happy coincidence. She asked if I knew what field it was. “No”. But I did mention there were two private fields in line with the main roads in the area. She said that that one must be that 40 foot wide runway. Ok. Well, it didn’t have X’s on it so it was technically “open”. Next question was whether or not I had made a choice. Again, thinking it was a trick I said “Well, given the option, I would always go for the paved runway.”

“I agree.”

So we began our circling decent always keeping the field to my left. Still need to work on the timing to manage altitude and distance but it went pretty well. I effectively got the plane turned into the downwind leg for the field at pattern altitude. She had to kind of snap my out of the process though because in my head I was going to fly that thing right to the field.  It was when I started getting ready for the base leg that she ended the maneuver.

Back Home

Back to the field.  Pilotage was a little harder since the foliage came in quite a bit from a month ago but it was no issue.

RADIO…WOW DID I BLOW THAT. Come to think of it I probably messed up every radio call on that flight.  She was quite nice about it though. The only piece of advice she gave me was to get what I wanted to say organized before keying the mic. You can’t figure it out after you go live.

Where you are, Who you are, What you want to do, and (in CTAF) where you are.

Seems simple? One would think.

I’ve got some studying to do.


Wrap Up

It wasn’t what I wanted but all in all it was a good flight. I need to get onto the next step. Two lessons scheduled for this weekend. Had my times moved earlier in the hopes of catching the calm part of the morning. Pattern work is most definitely next.

After 12 weeks, ground school finishes up tonight. Logbook will be endorsed and exam scheduled as soon as practical.

Medical within 2 weeks.

Solo prep exam within 2 weeks.

After that…I guess it’s all up to me an Mother Nature.


Judgement Call – Grounded

After a relatively good run, the winds once again turned against me.  My home airport’s primary runway is 28 so technically, that wind is within the limits of the aircraft. Not so the pilot, however. We could have gone up but it was mutually agreed the conditions would not make for a productive lesson.


Rather than cancel altogether, we decided to get a second (actually 2.5 total) hour of simulator time in. Considering the fact that you can apply simulator time towards flight time requirements, you can make really make that work for you.  In my case, the simulator was the Elite 135.

Elite 135

One side note: During the class we discussed some of the similarities and differences between this FAA approved simulator vs. some of the more “game style” simulators like FSX or X-Plane. While the list is deep, the biggest is the graphics. FSX and X-Plane graphics, particularly on scenery and weather are far superior than the Elite. My instructor, almost apologetically said, “Well, this is 1990’s technology.” 

“Sure.  But that’s fine. After all, we fly in a plane from 1977 so in that regard, we are decades ahead of ourselves!”.

While you can definitely run through a lot of the standard flight maneuvers on the simulator, my instructor said certain things really need to be done in the plane for them to stick. Second benefit…there is a Freeze button on the simulator. Same as in flight, there comes points where the brain is trying to manage 5 things at once.  To the experienced pilot who can achieve a flow experience ,4.5 of those things are done almost unconsciously. For the student, each of those things demands 100% attention. The math just doesn’t work out. In the plane, that means something is going to get neglected until the next scan cycle. In the simulator, just press Freeze. Get everything organized and move on.

Just Give Me The Test Already

We are 50% complete with ground school. With the Regs, Aircraft design, systems, weather, weight & balance topics, and aerodynamics covered, we’re moving on to navigation, flight planning, and aeromedical factors.

So, with the relative end in site, I am getting eager to take the FAA Knowledge exam. Our ground school kit has 2 books with standard questions in it for each of the main topics.  It’s good practice but still not the exam experience.

If only there were a place one could practice an “actual” exam.  Google to the rescue. mywrittenexam.com This is a free site affiliated with MyPilotStore.com. From a database of 1000 questions, they will assemble a 60 question test for you.  It’s timed just like the standard test and requires that you have the Test Supplement.  It’s $6.  Well worth the money.

Even without the full course I decided to do one of the exams.  Took me about 55 minutes.  I scored 85%. So, technically, I passed.  I want a higher score when I do it for real but that made me happy for now.  Another benefit is that you get statistics on how you performed on the key knowledge areas…great for identifying where you need to work.

For me…I missed most of my questions on the Navigation area. Hmm…exactly what I haven’t studied in ground school yet.


VOR Basics

Prior to the class I mentioned my test score to my instructor as well as my “deficiencies”. She was happy with the score and then said that that was what we would work on in the simulator.  Perfect.

While I know all the basics of VOR navigation, when it comes to actually using them for navigation, I totally lose the picture.  Happy to say now that I’ve completed the lesson…it isn’t quite High Definition, but I definitely see it.

It’s all about orientation and interpretation.

From my notes:

  • Tune and Ident the station. Tuning is easy. Identification is by morse code. I was asked if I knew Morse code. Um..well, I know SOS and YYZ (Thanks Rush) but that’s about it. Not mandatory because the sectional chart has the code on it but might be a good challenge.

  • Center the needle with the FROM arrow.  This, for me was the absolute key. There are plenty of good sites explaining VOR navigation so I won’t go into it here. Center the needle with the FROM arrow. Then STOP. Look at the VOR indicator.  DO NOT BOTHER TO LOOK AT THE HI YET.  I would and that would just confuse me.  The heading indicator on the top of the VOR indicator tells you where you are relative to the station. As I write this it all seems like common sense but I just could not get that before.  So, if you see 270 (we’ll keep that part easy for now as I don’t have all my headings memorized), you can confidently say, I am WEST of the VOR.  If you have DME you can then also say, I am X Miles WEST of the VOR. That’s It! If you look at the HI and happen to be flying 310, well, that will just confuse you. Don’t worry about orientation at first, just relative position. 
  • Once you know where you are, you then get to decide what you want to do. If you still want to use that VOR for navigation (say flying to it), you can turn the OBS knob and center the needle with the TO indicator. That tells you what heading to fly to go directly to the station. This was the one thing I knew but would always get confused as to where I was relative to the station. Center the needle, turn the plane. That’s It!
  • Of course you could then fly a specific radial to the station. That’s where you tune align that bearing on the VOR (TO), note the CDI position and fly in the direction of that needle.  30 degree intercept is typically a good amount.

There’s more to say on the 3rd point but for now, I’m internalizing the first 2. 

After some standard maneuvers in the flight simulator, we tuned the appropriate stations and identified position. Hit Freeze and she would randomly re-position the plane. “Ok, now where are you?” Over and over.  PERFECT.  “Ok, fly to this point between the two stations. Let me know when you are there.” Don’t even need to think about it anymore.

“Ok, fly to this position 5 miles out, turn to 082 and make the landing.” That was a nice set up because we haven’t gotten to that point in flight training yet.  Soon?

Didn’t think I would be happy for a windy day but that session was worth every penny.

Ground School 12
Simulator 2.5
Flight 5.5

Class 1 – Flight Service Station – 2/13/2013

After a few weeks of emailing back and forth, I was ready to go out for my first flight lesson in pursuit of my private pilot’s license.The first 3 hours would be as a participant in Cumberland Valley Aviation’s Fly It You’ll Like It program. A nice, no commitment introduction.

In the days leading up to the lesson I was eagerly watching the weather. Initially it was supposed to be quite windy. I had already watched a fair number of YouTube videos on testy cross wind landings. That didn’t scare me off and I reasoned that I might as well get some stomach churning flights under my belt early on to ensure I was cut out for it.

Sunday came and the winds had died down. Of course, the clouds had also moved in. MVFR conditions all morning.


Rather than scrap the time, my flight instructor provided me 1.5 hours of ground school.

Flight Service Station – Getting a weather briefing.

In all, pretty straight forward.

The humbling experience: Despite being a world traveller and expert time zone skipper, I totally fumbled the Zulu time conversion. Fortunately, my briefer was not too put off by blunder, simply informing me that I was giving him a Zulu departure time 1 hour in the past. Ok…I’ve got that now.

I was able to read back the brief to my instructor’s satisfaction and got my log book signed.

Ready to do it for real.

The scratch pad I used for the briefing worked in the test but I’ve since created my own standardized template for next time.