The vertical procedure turn

“What flying teaches you is to replace fear with knowledge.”
Oliver Smithies, biochemist and pilot, co-developer of the knock-out mouse.

It’s enormously pleasing to uncover hidden connections between seemingly unrelated observations, or problems for that matter. In biological research, this allows one to see the larger picture, very much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Similarly, in aviation not one piece of skill and knowledge stands alone, but is interconnected in wondrous and complex ways, creating a tableau that becomes more and more vivid and beautiful as one continues to learn. The quest for knowledge through research and flying have this in common – the more one learns, the greater the magic and enchantment.

While barely scratching the surface of the enormously addictive activity that is flying aerobatics, it did give me a taste of precision flying that proved quite helpful for flying approaches successfully.

For one, using the whole flight envelope teaches the pilot sensitivity towards the plane’s limits. Stalls are perceived with all senses: there is the decreasing sound of the slip stream as the plane slows. The controls become light and reach less and less effectively into the diminuishing flow of air. The time to induce a spin by kicking the rudder has to be precisely timed. In the good-natured Decathlon, it is exactly the moment where the fabric at the wing root starts to flutter, indicating the beginning of the stall, when rudder forces are still quite effective. Nose-high, stall horn screaming, the plane dips one wing and rotates gracefully around it, surrendering to the effects of rudder-induced adverse yaw. Media luna in the sky, come dance with me.

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A side effect of practising spins is that one becomes much more sensitive to airspeed and particularly, the decay of it. On the one hand, a really good thing in the traffic pattern. On the other, a difference in the sound of the slip stream serves as a reminder to look up from the approach plates and pull out of the developing dive before the wings depart from the fuselage. Ok. That might be a tad bit over-dramatic. Especially since one should never look at approach plates in one’s lap in the first place, but lift them up. Not just to continue to keep an eye on the instruments, but also because moving one’s head promotes spatial disorientation in the clouds. Isn’t it amazing? I’m secretely jealous of birds, but they can’t fly in IMC.

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But there is more: the acuteness or presence of mind needed to time aerobatic maneouvres so they flow gracefully and precise is exactly the skill needed to fly an approach well. In my fevered aviation dreams I open my approach book and find that the procedure turn is drawn in Arresti notation.

Lady in Red

Super Decathlon flying carpet: eager to go on a Spring Sunday morning in Southern Germany…grass field, interesting weather…loops and rolls, whispers of clouds and rain showers moving by…what’s not to love (file this under aviation porn).

Summer flying

“Kaiserwetter” – “emperor’s weather” it’s called in Munich – when the air is fragrant and fresh with the green aroma of Spring. The splendid sunshine and warmth carry the promise of summer and the sky is clear and wide, decorated with a few breezy cumuli. With the alps close by, the clouds are rising high. The sky is calling.

Biking to my new work place through an expansive, lush meadow, I reflect on my last summer on the East Coast, the magical time when I learned to fly. First of all, there were the lovely early morning lessons: I fondly remember waking at dawn to the theme of Top Gun playing on my iphone. Sleepiness giving way to gleeful anticipation, while sipping hot coffee in the delicate, brisk morning air on the balcony. Situated between two Victor airways, my lookout was facing West in the direction of that loveliest of harbors – my airport.

Then there would be the drive out to the field, listening to some favorite music of the moment, enjoying to get out of the city and into open landscape.  The liberating sensation of being on the way to engage in a new and outrageous activity – flying lessons! Giddy and in high spirits, I would salute a large flock of indignantly clucking turkeys, who would often strut about on the grass strip next to the access road. But what could be more exciting than the sight of a flock of airplanes, sitting on the ramp, ready to fly? Gathering my coffee mug and flight bag I’d take a deep breath – inhaling the fragrance of avgas with a hint of jet fuel. The smell of adventure. 10 feet tall and light as a feather I’d swagger to the FBO.

I love to remember stepping out on the ramp to preflight my worn, flight school Cessna. Sharply outlined in the sunshine, her ailerons bent, paint peeling in places. Her controls heavy, her avionics most basic, but the engine in top condition and, after 3 generous, squeaky primes, starting up smooth and strong. I would put on my sunglasses and headset, ready to go. She was my LOL, my little old lady, and I would taxi her proudly to the active.

The smallest deviation from the centerline was to be paid to my flight instructor in beers. I was running quite a tab. The atmosphere in the small, hot cockpit was always friendly and supportive, yet intensely focused with an acute attention for detail. As it should be. Pulling up to the hold-short line and squinting into the bright, sun-filled approach end for arriving traffic, I always felt privileged to be taught by such a terrific aviator. He’d notice the large bird of prey circling frequently over the short final right away. One hawk spotting the other.

With permission for takeoff, my focus would entirely shift to the tasks at hand, flying the airplane. I’d scan the horizon for traffic, register the G forces during my steep turns and notice the change in control effectiveness during slow flight. But only on the way back to the field, after getting the weather update and announcing my intentions (Touch and Go’s!) I’d realize, with a start, that I was indeed up there in the gentle summer air, blue mountains stretching out over New Hampshire, a soft, green landscape dotted with lakes. Laid out in the distance, graceful and shimmering, the city of Boston and behind it, the Atlantic ocean, immense and calm. The E on my heading indicator pointing towards Europe. Light, air, land and ocean in harmony. I was learning to command a new medium, and while everything about learning to fly an airplane was new and strange, in moments like this, I felt completely at ease, home.

First solo

“Right aileron, more left rudder, more….centerline..jo, what’s with the airspeed…look ahead, end of the runway…get it right, get it right…” my brain is working hard in the little Cessna 172M.

Given the fact I have more than one hundred landings under my belt, I could afford to relax a bit.

“Why are you breathing so heavily?” Marc, my instructor asks.
We are on the short final for runway 14 at KLWM. There is a slight crosswind from the right and my answer is instantaneous and heart-felt:
“Because flying scares the sh** out of me!”

Touchdown and subsequent takeoff are fine, but Marc wouldn’t know, he’s gasping for air and clapping his hands with delight. On the crosswind, he wipes away tears of laughter. “Ok, where are we?!”

I find this only partially funny. The time is high for my first solo. Nobody would guess what a high-anxiety activity flying is for me. At the same time, I’m completely intoxicated by the new world of aviation, loving every part of it right down to the smell of avgas.

So here I am, a slow, but determined, timid yet enthusiastic learner blessed with a wonderfully patient and supportive instructor. As I taxi toward the tower to drop him off, I positively fight the rising panic. This is indeed the scariest thing I have ever done. At the same time though, I know I’m ready and welcome the cool determination that comes with this realization.

“Have fun”, Marc hops out of the plane. I give him a thumbs-up and grin bravely.  When the tower clears me for takeoff, I take a deep breath and gingerly roll out onto the runway. My hands are so sweaty that I have trouble keeping the yoke steady. But not to go is simply not an option and I add full throttle. As I rotate, I notice that the plane is climbing more easily, with less weight. Flying solo is amazing and perfectly normal at the same time. My voice is steady as I announce myself on the downwind. The landing is not my best, but controlled.

As I taxi back to the hangar, Marc walks towards me, beaming, waving his arms and taking pictures. It is only then I realize that all I had done was to fly the plane. He had to watch from the ground and trust his decision making. It cannot have been easy, after my statement on how I feel about flying. But on that cloudy summer day, I safely soloed an airplane. And along with the little old Cessna, my heart and soul soared